Jacob Silverman

  • All-Consuming Interests

    Circa August 1993, in a museum in the Netherlands, I had what Adam, the narrator of Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station, skeptically calls “a profound experience of art,” something riveting and unselfconscious. (Adam has only experienced the absence of a profound experience of art, and he doesn’t believe that anyone else he knows has really been “changed” by a poem or song, either.) I was eight years old, intensely serious, receiving steady doses of cold medication and family Holocaust lore during my first trip out of the US. In a museum gift shop, I spied a print of a woman sitting in a

  • Innovators Abroad

    WALTER ISAACSON is America’s leading chronicler of Great Men—or “geniuses,” as his publisher describes them in a PR note accompanying his latest book, The Innovators. A former editor in chief of Time, which made its name by designating Great Men (and very occasionally Women) “People of the Year,” Isaacson specializes in expansive, solidly researched middlebrow histories, the kind that appear under your father’s Christmas tree or on a talk-show host’s desk. Benjamin Franklin, Albert Einstein, Henry Kissinger, and Steve Jobs have all received the Isaacson treatment, with a handful of others coming

  • culture October 18, 2012

    Drugs without the Hot Air by David Nutt

    In 2009, David Nutt, a neuropsychopharmacologist who served as chair of Britain's Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD), published a paper in a medical journal that offered a provocative thesis: horseback riding, he wrote, was more dangerous than taking ecstasy. Examining the two activities across a range of metrics, Nutt estimated that every 10,000th ecstasy pill leads to an “adverse event,” while a rider is injured every 350th episode.

    The story went viral and the details of Nutt's analysis were lost in the ensuing media tempest. His own organization tried to distance itself from

  • culture August 21, 2012

    Journalism by Joe Sacco

    Joe Sacco is Art Spiegelman with a passport, or Jon Lee Anderson with a sketchpad. Sacco's “comics journalism”—intensively researched and reported stories told through text and illustrations—are deeply humane, disturbing portraits of war, oppression, and sectarian tension. Since turning his attention abroad in the late ’80s, Sacco has produced articles and books about the Middle East, South Asia, and elsewhere that rival the reporting of most top-flight foreign correspondents. His work, moreover, is a reminder of the hidebound nature of much international reporting, and of the potential for

  • culture August 06, 2012

    Against Enthusiasm

    The writer Emma Straub has 9,192 Twitter followers. That might seem like a lot for an author whose first novel, Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures, hasn’t even come out yet. But Emma Straub is really good at Twitter. She’s funny and charming and evinces great enthusiasm for the books and stories of the fellow authors and critics in her social sphere. Outside of Twitter, Straub writes for many bookish publications, she's the daughter of the novelist Peter Straub, and she runs a small design outfit with her husband that's made posters for everyone from Passion Pit to Jonathan Lethem.

  • Northern Exposure

    Blaine Harden’s chronicle of Shin Dong-hyuk’s life in a North Korean prison camp and his eventual escape is a slim, searing, humble book—as close to perfect as these volumes of anguished testimony can be. Shin is a child of the camp system in the most literal sense—he was born in 1982 in Camp 14, one of the half-dozen secret facilities that dot the country, forming a modern gulag archipelago holding up to two hundred thousand prisoners. And while some of the camps allow for rehabilitation and release (albeit with lifetime monitoring), Shin was born into a “complete control district,” a place

  • culture February 21, 2012

    The Letter Killers Club by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky

    Certain writers are too weird to fully belong to their own time. Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky—a Soviet writer obsessed with Kant and Shakespeare, whose own life barely rippled beyond a small coterie of Muscovite writers before his death in 1950—is among them. Krzhizhanovsky wrote philosophical works of fiction that veer between chattiness and, in the fine translations of Joanne Turnbull and Nikolai Formozov, unexpected elegance. They are tales of bodies suspended between life and death, of an animated Eiffel Tower that rampages across Europe, and of towns where dreams are made literal. To read

  • culture December 01, 2011

    Sweet Heaven When I Die By Jeff Sharlet

    In his new book of essays, Sweet Heaven When I Die, Jeff Sharlet recounts a tête-à-tête between writers William Hogeland and Greil Marcus over the subject of Dock Boggs, a folk singer-turned-coal miner who was rediscovered and canonized during the 1960s folk revival. Marcus described Boggs as "a seer" and "the prophet of his own life." Hogeland responded that "prophecy and darkness are the products of the critic's own romantic inclinations," and not due to any inherently noble splendor in Boggs's journey through the violence and deprivation of southwestern Virginia's coal country.


  • culture April 28, 2010

    Aliens in the Prime of Their Lives by Brad Watson

    “Tell a dream, lose a reader,” the saying goes, but Brad Watson ignored that advice in his splendidly dream-laden novel, The Heaven of Mercury, and watched it become a finalist for the National Book Award in 2002. Watson’s dreams work because they avoid twee mysticism or kitsch — they’re made of reality with a slight shift, as if his characters phase just out of the earthly plane, then return with visions that seem logical, essential to our understanding of the story.

  • The Line

    The afterword to Olga Grushin’s second novel, The Line, explains that her book is based on Igor Stravinsky’s 1962 visit to Russia, the great composer’s return home after fifty years abroad. More than five thousand fans waited a year in line for a concert he would conduct, establishing schemes to preserve their places and forming “a unique and complex social system.” While the historical circumstances were singular, this makeshift community was not. Elaborate queues were an important part of the Soviet system: People waited in rows for everything—food, clothing, medicine, travel permits—and the