Sign Up

Get the latest ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit.

All Arts & Culture Coverage

Lauren Graham is perhaps best known for her acting, particularly her role as the young, headstrong single mom Lorelai in the television show “Gilmore Girls.” But Graham, who has a bachelor’s degree in English from Barnard College and master’s of fine arts in acting performance from Southern Methodist University, is also the accomplished author of a novel (Someday, Someday, Maybe), a collection of personal essays (Talking as Fast as I Can) and a book of advice for graduates (In Conclusion, Don’t Worry About It). 

Graham’s second book of personal essays, Have I Told You This Already?: Stories I Don’t Want to Forget to Remember, is composed of 15 insightful pieces relaying impactful moments and life lessons that have shaped who she is. She explains how her creative outlook was molded by people and experiences from her youth. For example, although her mother was largely absent from her upbringing, Graham sees a positive side to this fact: “I think not growing up with my mom means I didn’t have any preconceived notions of what a mom is supposed to be!” 

Graham takes the reader on a behind-the-scenes tour of Hollywood, sharing acting jargon such as “pumpkin” (the term for when child actors have to be done working for the day) and “sold it in the room” (getting backing from someone with clout). She’s candid about the demands of show business, too, and the acrobatics that actors have to perform to fit into the Hollywood mold. In a chapter aptly named “Forever 32,” Graham reflects on aging, comparing her recollections of being a 20-something to when, at the age of 32, she realized “I had a sense of myself I’d never had before.” She also muses about her days as a young actor, hustling to various jobs while trying to make it. These stories and anecdotes are especially raw, real and humorous.

Graham’s writing is fresh, sharp and very funny, with fast, staccato sentences that evoke what it must be like to have a conversation with her. Her voice invites the reader in, emanating a refreshing openness that will make them want to be her best friend. Have I Told You This Already? is an enjoyable, amusing revelation.

Actor Lauren Graham’s second collection of essays is fresh, sharp and very funny, with staccato sentences that evoke what it must be like to have a conversation with her.
Review by

Sam Heughan, known to legions of fans as Jamie Fraser in the popular TV show based on Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series, recently decided it was time to walk the rigorous West Highland Way in Scotland, a long-distance hiking trail that runs from north of Glasgow to Fort William in the Scottish Highlands. He wanted a solitary challenge and a pause in the acting career he has worked tirelessly at, and packing 96 miles into five days seemed like it would provide the right combination of endurance and introspection. In his remarkable, thought-provoking memoir, Waypoints: My Scottish Journey, he welcomes readers along for the journey.

Before Heughan stepped out the door onto the West Highland Way, he was a runner, not a walker. Marathons, yes; walking slowly, not his thing. His camping and hiking experiences were limited; he even thought hiking poles were “cumbersome” and almost threw them away once he hit the trail. His overstuffed rucksack, complete with whiskey and cigars, weighed him down. The rain in late October almost ruined him on the second day, and he soon chose comfortable wayside inns over his tent. But he was nearing his 40th birthday (making him the same age as the Way) and, despite these challenges, felt it was simply time he got this done.

Bracketing Heughan’s journey is an account of his visit to his dying father in faraway British Columbia, Canada. The man was a stranger who abandoned his family long ago, but Heughan and his brother felt nonetheless compelled to offer a goodbye. Once they arrived, Heughan was stunned to learn that his father had been following his acting career all along. He recorded their visit on his phone, but later, back on the set of “Outlander,” the phone vanished. It was, he writes, “a fitting epitaph.”

The award-winning actor, author, philanthropist and entrepreneur offers plenty of details of his walk to Fort William, including a daunting hike up Ben Nevis, the highest mountain in the United Kingdom. Along the way, Heughan has a clear, precise and entertaining style. He is a funny man, and his encounters with roaming sheep, other hikers and clusters of mushrooms are wonderfully comic. 

If Waypoints were merely about Heughan’s walk, it would be delightful, instructive and enticing. But this is a memoir, after all, and it is his reflection on his life and work, interspersed with the challenges and discoveries of the Way, that lend his story heft and grit.

“Outlander” star Sam Heughan’s reflections on his life and work add heft and grit to his memoir about walking the West Highland Way in Scotland.
Feature by

★ From Harvest to Home

Let me be a voice in passionate support of relishing all things fall: Pile those pumpkins! Bust out the mums! Go big on apples and cinnamon! I am here for it. With From Harvest to Home, lifestyle blogger Alicia Tenise Chew speaks right to the deepest autumnal cravings with recipes, low-key crafts and lists of scary movies and top Thanksgiving TV episodes. Nachos get a fall twist (and healthy upgrade) with sweet potatoes, French 75 cocktails go goth with the addition of activated charcoal, and there’s a pumpkin gnocchi with cinnamon sage brown butter sauce that I most certainly will be requesting of my home-cook husband. Chew provides checklists of activities you might enjoy during each of the three fall months, a welcome inspo tool for us easily overwhelmed types, as well as self-care tips for the return of short days and cold weather. You don’t have to do all the fall things, of course. But you can more deeply delight in a few faves with the help of this book—and feel not a shred of shame for loving flannel and pumpkin spice lattes. 

An American in Provence

Perhaps you’ve heard this story: Highly successful urban professional departs the rat race, decamps to the countryside and achieves a slower, simpler, even more beautiful life. But you’ve never seen rustic expatriation evoked quite so lusciously as it is in An American in Provence, artist Jamie Beck’s pictorial memoir. Beck is a photographer, and alongside romantic self-portraits, still lifes, sweeping landscapes and tablescapes, she shares generously of her expertise. There are tips for photographing children, getting the most out of your smartphone camera and working with natural lighting. Along the way Beck writes of settling in the small French town of Apt, giving birth to her daughter, Eloise, and leaning into the seasonal rhythms of the region. Recipes are sprinkled throughout like herbes de Provence: a violet sorbet, daube Provençale, wild thyme grilled lamb. In total, the effect is bewitching and immersive, and quite the motivation to save for one’s own dream trip to the hills, fields and ancient villages of southeastern France.

How to Be Weird

In high school, I was often told that I was weird. I took it as a point of pride, and still do. Weird is a thing to strive for in my book, as it is in Eric G. Wilson’s How to Be Weird, which amounts to an Rx for the rote life, an antidote to crushing mundanity. The small actions and thought experiments compiled here, 99 in total, are intended to disrupt dull thinking, to help us see our world and ourselves in fresh ways. They could be applied usefully in many settings, from classroom to cocktail party to corporate retreat. And as the veteran English professor he is, Wilson connects many of the actions to history, philosophy, literature, the sciences and so on. If you don’t end up weirder in the best ways from sniffing books or inventing new curse words, you’ll at least have gleaned some solid knowledge along the way.

Set up the perfect gourd-themed tablescape, photograph it like a pro, and then invite all your weirdest friends over to partake of autumn’s bounty. If this sounds like your definition of a good time, read on.

Using the well-worn adjectives elusive and idiosyncratic to describe Haruki Murakami may be clichéd, but if ever a writer embodied these sobriquets, it is certainly the internationally beloved Japanese author. His fiction can be hard to classify—is it science fiction? dystopian? satire?—so it stands to reason that a nonfiction work wherein he shares his thoughts on writing would be equally hard to categorize. Novelist as a Vocation, part memoir and part informal advice guide, offers a glimpse into a personal life Murakami has long kept guarded. Originally published in Japanese in 2015, it has now been translated by Philip Gabriel and Ted Goossen into straightforward English prose that captures Murakami’s unadorned, conversational style and self-deprecating wit.

Murakami declares up front that he should be viewed as a regular man who happens to write hugely popular novels. “If I do say so myself, I’m the type of ordinary guy you’ll find anywhere,” he writes. “Not the type to stand out when I stroll around town, the type who’s always shown to the worst tables at restaurants. I doubt that if I didn’t write novels, anyone would ever have noticed me.” In his telling, his path to writing was accidental. While in his late 20s, working long days and nights running a jazz club, he went to a baseball game one day (jazz, baseball and running, we learn, are his three great passions) where he spontaneously decided to write a novel. In six months he produced Hear the Wind Sing, which went on to win a prestigious Japanese prize, launching his literary career.

Such fairy-tale serendipity, sadly, does not supply the magic formula aspiring writers might be seeking, but it does underscore the unpredictability of success. Murakami makes many good points, especially as he praises the welcoming embrace of the writing community, where novices can take up a pen or laptop and call themselves a writer without much resentment from established practitioners. But he is quick to emphasize that long-term durability as a writer is more challenging than that initial success, requiring not only discipline and luck but continuing inspiration and originality. 

Is Murakami’s claim at ordinariness genuine? Certainly, the everyday details he reveals in Novelist as a Vocation seem pretty conventional. Meanwhile, the advice he doles out to acolytes is—here’s that word again—idiosyncratic and highly personal, methods that work for him but probably won’t for everyone (which he would be the first to admit). But you don’t become an international literary superstar by being ordinary, no matter how “mundane” your daily life is. A deeper dive into Murakami’s singular mind would be devoured by his millions of readers, but one senses he is not willing to fully breach the wall of privacy he has carefully erected. Still, fans will come away from Novelist as a Vocation with a clearer idea of what makes this elusive writer tick.

Haruki Murakami’s collection of essays about his life and writing provides a tantalizing peek into the famously secretive writer’s world.

Actor Paul Newman was known for many things: acting, car racing, philanthropy through his Newman’s Own food business and, of course, his rugged good looks and piercing blue eyes. He was a beloved Hollywood icon, but he didn’t think of himself that way. In fact, he wrestled with internal demons throughout his life.

Newman’s memoir, The Extraordinary Life of an Ordinary Man, composed posthumously from interviews he began conducting in 1986 with the help of screenwriter and close friend Stewart Stern, is raw, honest and revealing. Through his own reminiscences and those of his contemporaries, including Elia Kazan, Stuart Rosenberg, Eva Marie Saint and Tom Cruise, the book provides a firsthand glimpse of Newman’s life and how his choices affected those around him. His upbringing, military service in World War II, first marriage to Jackie Witt, second marriage to actor Joanne Woodward, six children and professional and personal endeavors are all laid out on the table.

Even after he became famous, Newman was often unsure of himself. Part of this stemmed from the fact that he likely had a learning disability. The way he was treated by his parents, especially his mother, was also detrimental. She could be hurtful and treated him like a dress-up doll rather than a son. Newman’s memories of his father depict the man as an indifferent alcoholic. Unfortunately, this contributed to Newman’s own problems with alcoholism, as well as his son Scott’s substance issues and depression—burdens Newman carried his whole life.

But Newman also had more positive traits, from charisma and humor to compassion and business savvy. These qualities pop up throughout the book and were obvious to those who knew him. But even after all his success, he just couldn’t seem to shake his feelings of self-doubt. “If I had to define ‘Newman’ in the dictionary, I’d say: ‘One who tries too hard,’” he writes. The Extraordinary Life of an Ordinary Man is a humble and candid look into the life of a celebrated but often misunderstood man.

In Paul Newman’s posthumous memoir, his upbringing, military service, marriages, children and professional endeavors are all laid out on the table.
Review by

Oh, Lord Grantham, patriarch of Downton Abbey! We feel as though we already know you, with those twinkling eyes and deep, reassuring voice. In Playing Under the Piano: From Downton to Darkest Peru, stage and screen actor Hugh Bonneville shares what he calls “a series of snapshots I’ve taken along the way,” allowing us to know him more truly. As you might expect, his account is intriguing, breezy and full of intellect and humor. It’s also a delicious stroll down a red carpet lined with big names, including Hugh Grant, Julia Roberts, Laurence Olivier, Celia Imrie, Leonardo DiCaprio and many more.

The memoir is divided into sections discussing Bonneville’s childhood, theater years and film roles. His father was a urologist and his mother a nurse—or so he thought before learning after her death that her second job was with MI6, the British Secret Service. “I may not have been born with a silver spoon in my mouth but I realised I had a nice set of crockery compared to so many others,” he writes. Early on, he began thinking of the theater as a “magic toybox,” although he originally thought he would become a lawyer and also contemplated theology until drama school beckoned.

There’s no mean-spirited gossip in this memoir, just plenty of humorous self-deprecation and some laugh-out-loud anecdotes—like the time an actor in a live theater performance was popping peanuts while making a confession and ended up choking and passing out. Or the time Judi Dench dropped a note that said “Fancy a shag?” in the lap of an audience member she thought was a friend. Turns out, the man was not her pal.

Bonneville’s years of rich stage, television and film performances are nicely detailed, including amusing audition mishaps and disappointments. Although he offers a number of anecdotes about his parents, siblings, wife and son, he remains largely private about his personal life. But the “Downton Abbey” stories are wonderful, even if rabid fans like myself will wish for more. We shouldn’t complain though, given tidbits like Shirley MacLaine’s comment, “I had lovers all over the world. Overseas was fun. This one time, three in a day.” To which Maggie Smith responded, “Oh darling, you have been busy.”

Playing Under the Piano is a must-read for Bonneville fans, as well as an excellent look at the ups and downs of being an actor. Now excuse me while I go watch Paddington again.

Hugh Bonneville’s memoir is intriguing, breezy and full of intellect, a delicious stroll down a red carpet lined with big names and laugh-out-loud anecdotes.

Once upon a time, in a galaxy not so far away, the hallowed institution of nerdom became mainstream. No longer are the niche predilections of geeks sequestered to the outskirts of pop culture; these die-hard fans have cultivated a recognized movement that can shift the cultural discourse. But for fans like New York Times critic-at-large and poet Maya Phillips (Erou), fandom is more than cosplay, heated debates on social media or narrow-minded stereotypes centered on social awkwardness. In her debut essay collection, Nerd: Adventures in Fandom From This Universe to the Multiverse, fandom is an expansive, transformative source of self-enlightenment.

Like many pop culture aficionados, Phillips’ first brush with fandom involved the original Star Wars trilogy. This early appreciation of George Lucas’ classic space opera opened the door to a lifelong love of other nerdy interests, such as comic books, anime, sci-fi and fantasy. However, the stories she cherished in childhood took on different forms as she grew older. In the chapter “Espers and Anxiety, Mutants, Magic, and Mind Games,” Phillips shows how the anime series Paranoia Agent reveals the nature of power and society’s treatment of mental illness, and how it has led Phillips to better understand herself and her mental health. Similarly, “Do You Know Shinigami Love Apples?” explores Phillips’ relationship to Catholicism and fandom’s hierarchy of belief systems.

As a Black woman, Phillips recognizes that some of her most beloved shows, films and books lack well-rounded representation in terms of race, gender, ability and sexual orientation. In recent years, creators like J.K. Rowling have faced backlash for betraying the seemingly progressive values of their art. Is it possible to divorce an artist from their work? For many people, the answer is emphatically no, but Phillips rejects binary thinking. This isn’t to say that she endorses the more problematic aspects of these creators and their fictional narratives. But as a fan and a professional critic, Phillips sees the value in pop culture’s ability to speak deeper truths, however uncomfortable, about society. Navigating pop culture as a Black fan can be a frustrating exercise in otherness, she writes, but fandom can also be a conscious act of reclamation.

Nerd spans decades of pop culture, smoothly weaving multiple interconnected webs. Phillips indulges in her obsessions, but she’s never afraid to critique and deconstruct. In this engaging compendium of cultural criticism, Phillips successfully proves that the complex discipline of fandom is a valuable piece of humanity’s flawed but hopeful history.

According to cultural critic Maya Phillips, fandom is more than cosplay and internet discourse. It’s an expansive, transformative source of self-enlightenment.
Review by

Poet and author Ander Monson has seen the 1987 movie Predator, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger on the run from an alien in a Guatemalan jungle, 146 times. To explain why, he wrote Predator: A Memoir. Through a scene-by-scene exploration of the film, which he describes as “satire wrapped in gun pornography,” Monson reckons with his lifelong obsession with the movie and how it has informed his relationships to fatherhood, violence, fanaticism and masculinity.

“How dumb is this to have spent a decade or more watching this kind of dumb movie?” Monson asks throughout the book. What he proves is that Predator is both dumb and insightful; spending a lifetime with Predator is both a fun, escapist pastime and a profound self-education. Through repeated rewatches of the film, Monson better understands the real-life predators that have lingered in his imagination. One recurring image is the shocking rape and murder of his childhood babysitter by a budding serial killer in his small hometown in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. In the character of the Predator, Monson sees a culmination of how violence, particularly violence committed by men, has been fetishized: “What’s hunting us is us, Predator tells us. It’s a version of us—male, equipped, single-minded, armed, aggressive, showy, and powerful.” With complete candor, he interrogates violence he has both witnessed and committed, violence that has both harmed and benefited him.

This is not film analysis, and though Monson does provide critique, he’s not looking at the film as a work of art. Predator is about Monson’s shifting relationship to a fixed cultural object and how he has seen himself reflected in it and found himself reflecting it back. However, navel-gazing is skillfully avoided. Monson’s narration has the rampant energy and good-natured, aw-shucks humility of a lively conversation in a movie theater lobby. 

Some level of interest in the film is definitely required to understand what Monson is saying, but his storytelling spills over with tactile curiosity and fervor, making this work accessible to those who have seen the movie 145 fewer times than he has. It’s a book that will ignite conversation (and multiple film rewatches) for those who can relate to Monson’s familiar sentiment: “I’m not angry at masculinity exactly but I do have questions for it.”

Ander Monson’s exploration of the 1987 film Predator has the rampant energy and good-natured, aw-shucks humility of a lively conversation in a movie theater lobby.
Review by

When actor Michael K. Williams prepared for his iconic role of Omar in “The Wire,” he turned to his memories of a dear neighborhood friend from Brooklyn: an unconventional, swaggering lesbian named Robin. She had helped him survive a sad adolescence. She had also introduced him to crack cocaine.

Williams’ path from bullied, frightened boy to respected actor and advocate for justice ended tragically in 2021 when he died of a drug overdose at 54 after decades of struggling with addiction. He leaves behind the poignant, vivid memoir Scenes From My Life, written with Jon Sternfeld, which will cement Williams’ legacy as a kind, thoughtful man who used his public prominence to give back to his community.

As Williams often noted, his personality was far from that of ruthless Omar. Growing up in an East Flatbush housing project, Williams was a fragile outsider, tormented for his dark skin and his fluid sexuality. But he did have some luck in the form of a determined mother and loyal friends who helped him break loose from his neighborhood’s insularity.

As he grew older, Williams progressed from Manhattan dance clubs to a nascent modeling career, which was truncated when a razor wound from a bar fight left a deep scar across his face. Ironically, the scar gave him the distinctive appearance that led to a successful dance career, then to acting.

Williams’ fans remember him for his roles in “The Wire,” “Boardwalk Empire,” “Hap and Leonard,” “The Night Of” and so many other productions—but his memoir offers relatively few details about his acting career, drug use or romantic relationships. Instead, it is a sensitive exploration of his journey to become an advocate for young people from backgrounds like his who get stuck in the school-to-prison pipeline.

Despite Williams’ own challenges before his death, he made important progress in his aspiration to scatter what he called “breadcrumbs”—pathways to help others escape poverty and injustice.

Scenes From My Life cements “The Wire” actor Michael K. Williams’ legacy as a kind, thoughtful man who used his public prominence to give back to his community.
Interview by

In How to Read Now, Elaine Castillo models how to read not just books but also history, culture and the world with an eye toward understanding how the ideas that inform our reading lives came to be.

You write that your book’s title, How to Read Now, is both a comment and a question. Can you say more about that?
Like I say in the introduction, there’s some real ambivalence on my part in the title: a reluctance, a resistance even, to writing a book about the racial politics of our reading culture that might be assumed to serve as essentially a CliffsNotes on anti-racism for the edification of white readers. That being said, as a chronically bossy Virgo and an elder sister in an immigrant family, my love language, unsurprisingly, is 24/7 critique. (To paraphrase a favorite T-shirt I once bought from The Cut, which quotes art critic Jerry Saltz, “Criticism Never Sleeps,” lol.)

But at its core, the title feels most of all like the beginning of an investigation, an exploration. Someone once asked me if I felt that writing books was therapeutic, and—if we’re staying within the realm of clinical metaphors—I don’t feel that the relationship I have to the books I write is a therapeutic one exactly. By which I mean that I know the curative capacities of writing are possible, of course, but in my experience, they’ve always been unpredictable, unreliable, idiosyncratic; personal and fragile. What feels truer to me is that writing books feels laparoscopic, like exploratory surgery. Something’s going on; you’re not entirely sure what. You have to go in to find out.

You write that books were a waypoint on your journey to becoming a reader. Why is reading bigger than books?
While I was lucky enough to have one parent who was a voracious, mostly self-taught reader who passed his love of reading down to me, the majority of the people in my family would never characterize themselves as readers. In fact, in a larger immigrant family, the older generation’s confidence in reading either Tagalog or English is shaky. That said, those same people were some of the best readers of the world I ever knew or will ever know. They taught me by example how to read my way through the world: how they gauged interactions with a boss, how they sighed after a film, what places in the world they built internal altars to, what losses in the world they mourned. Like I say in the book, I don’t want a book called How to Read Now to speak only to people who had the largely middle-class benefit of the education and leisure space that allows people to become not just literate but literary-minded; but equally, I don’t want it to let off the hook the people (like those I love and come from) who say that books aren’t for them, that reading culture isn’t for them. The truth is, we read and are being read by the world every day, in a million languages, in a million minute ways. But How to Read Now is a slightly easier title than How to Dismantle Your Entire Critical Apparatus.

Read our starred review of ‘How to Read Now’ by Elaine Castillo.

What’s one characteristic of a really good reader?
I think expecting that you could distill the essence of a really good reader to one characteristic is probably characteristic of a . . . not . . . great reader? I’m mostly kidding, but there’s some truth to the cheek. It’s a little like Logan Roy in “Succession,” which I just started watching (culturally I’m generally three to five years late on things), demanding his people tell him what the “protein” is in any given memo, discussion or article. That instinct to say, “Well, what’s the One Takeaway I can get from this?” is the driving force of reading under neoliberal capitalism: reading as a form of market competition and resource extraction, collecting pedagogical or ethnographic data—which is how so many writers of color, in particular, are typically read by white readers in this industry—as opposed to reading as a carving out of a uniquely intimate, uniquely vulnerable space in the world, in which a reader is as laid bare to a book as the world of a book is laid bare to her.

How to Read Now by Elaine Castillo

What’s one way that you have changed as a reader over time?
I think the most stark way I’ve changed is that I try to read more slowly—which, for someone who was the proverbial bookworm, a real devourer of literary worlds, hasn’t been easy. For my entire life, I’ve been someone who’ll read anywhere; most of my books as a kid had food stains on them from reading while I ate. Family members used to make fun of how they’d never see my face because it was always behind a book. And now, of course, with the advent of reading on your phone, it never ends. You’re always reading an article, falling asleep in bed reading The Age of Innocence on the Kindle, reading a friend’s PDF proof, reading a Reddit thread on how to find a Legendary Animal in Red Dead Redemption 2 or how to get through the Yiga Clan Hideout in Zelda: Breath of the Wild, reading another article on post-radiation care for senior dogs. (I adopted a senior German Shepherd a year and a half ago, my beloved Xena. She just underwent surgery and radiation, so that takes up a lot of my reading at the moment.) I’ve also never had strict taste boundaries when it came to reading. There was never highbrow or lowbrow; everything was on the table, everything was there to be read. So trying to read more slowly has been the great ongoing failure of my adult life.

“As a chronically bossy Virgo and an elder sister in an immigrant family, my love language, unsurprisingly, is 24/7 critique.”

You write that white supremacy is the “rot at the core” of the publishing industry and position this book as a reckoning. This reminds me of the book’s cover, which features a bomb in the O of the word Now; in the acknowledgements, you call the cover “tough, bold, and literally incendiary.” What’s one conversation that you hope blows up because of this book?
Going back to resisting the practice of reduction to the One, I’m going to say that for every essay in the book, there’s a conversation—and yes, potentially an incendiary conversation, as the best ones can be—to be had. A conversation about the hypocrisies of reading as an empathy machine, when we demand the safari treatment—translations, glossaries, maps—from writers of color yet bestow full artistic impunity on white artists. A conversation about the national myths we ask our monuments, our parks, our land to tell us, and the fury that erupts when people who’ve been expunged from those myths tell their own stories about how those monuments, those parks, that land came to be. A conversation about whiteness in the world of science fiction and fantasy, especially with respect to fables of oppression, difference and dystopia, inspired by the marginalized experiences of people of color, who are then erased from the tale. A conversation about the great presumed oracles of California, such as Joan Didion, and the settler colonial history that inescapably makes up the foundation of her work and worldview, not to mention the readers who venerate her. A conversation about writing pedagogy in an academic institution, especially one that will not protect its students from sexual harassment and assault, and its connection to other forms of silencing, intellectual and otherwise, in the power dynamics of a classroom. A conversation about the paucity of Representation Matters Art, and the failures of the drive toward positive representation generally. A conversation about our classics, and how they become so, and just what incursions we might make into the future of those classics.

Most of these questions do have a common thread, of course: Why do we read the way we do? How on earth did we get here? And how can we imagine—creatively, culturally, sensually, politically—an elsewhere; an otherwise?

You write that acknowledging politics in literature—such as the everyday presence of colonialism in fairy tales like “Cinderella”—is an act of expansion that opens up conversations rather than shutting them down. Why do you think some readers are so resistant to these kinds of conversations, especially when dealing with works by white authors?
This isn’t a great mystery, is it? Why do we think some people are resistant to critical race theory, an utterly benign label—much like “antifa”—that has been deformed and fetishized into demonic proportions by a politically successful and financially rewarded far-right white supremacist cultural lobby? Why do we think those same people are perfectly accepting of the white supremacist paranoia of espousing White Replacement Theory? The discussion makes me think of Jamaica Kincaid’s great line from Lucy, when the narrator wonders about her white employer who (in a familiar move) dubiously claims to have Native ancestry: “How do you get to be the sort of victor who can claim to be the vanquished also?”

Ultimately we can’t keep rehashing—re-diagnosing, to go back to the clinical metaphors—the whys of white supremacy, white fragility, white grievance. It’s asking people of color to waste their time getting embroiled in bad faith process arguments.

People don’t like to talk about the history of empire and enslaved labor that underpins the Regency world either, including the work of Jane Austen, because it interrupts their romantic fantasy of white gentility and interrupts their ability to project themselves apolitically into that world. So we come up with arguments like “applying postcolonial theory to Austen is anachronistic!” despite the fact that Regency scholars like Patricia A. Matthews have shown us that abolition was a widely known topic of debate in Austen’s era and that Austen’s peers wrote abolition literature, wrote about interracial relationships in their fiction, etc. It’s not unlike how the white marble statues of Greek gods were fetishized by English and German classicists to corroborate stories about antiquity as a romanticized vision of pure, noble whiteness, conveniently leaving out the fact that all of those statues had, in their time, been painted a riot of colors. So what are people really invested in when they resist acknowledging these historical facts? Is it really Austen? Is it really Greek myth? Or is it, rather, the story they’ve been allowed to believe about themselves, and their world, through these deliberate interpretations and elisions?

“Trying to read more slowly has been the great ongoing failure of my adult life.”

Elaine Castillo
Headshot of Elaine Castillo by Amaal Said.

You are best known for writing fiction, especially your acclaimed novel America Is Not the Heart. How to Read Now is your first nonfiction book, and there’s a narrative quality to these essays, a feeling of following an ever-developing line of thought. Which of your skills as a fiction writer did you bring to crafting these essays?
I was just joking to someone—they were asking if writing a second book was easier, having already written a first—that I don’t know if any book helps you write the next one, really. With each book, what you learn is how to write that book, and that book specifically. The next is a new world, all over again. But if there is a narrative throughline to the book, an ever-developing line of thought, then it’s probably because, like I said earlier, I don’t really have fixed boundaries around my writing; much of what I bring to bear in a novel is also what I bring to bear as a critical thinker.

But it’s also just how the book came about. I wanted it to feel like entering into the personal history of someone’s reading life, while also following along as they think, ruminate, go deeper, swim in the dark, resurface again to take a breath. Some of my favorite nonfiction books read like that, like Toni Morrison’s Playing in the Dark, or Jamaica Kincaid’s A Small Place, or John Berger’s many essays on art and politics. The critical thinking in those works often feels like narrative storytelling, not only because all those writers are also fiction writers themselves but also because the voices in their books are so singular, because the urgency in them is so alive, so intimate, so to the bone.

In your concluding essay, you talk about Homer’s “The Odyssey,” particularly the scene with the monster Polyphemus. Readers are taught to identify with Odysseus, but what would it mean to identify instead with Polyphemus?
Well, besides pushing back against the idea that Polyphemus is a monster at all—isn’t Odysseus, in the end, also a monster? Or is that just dependent on who’s telling the story?—I’m resistant to the impulse of identification as the rhyme and reason for reading. Parsing the characters we’re tacitly meant to view as heroic, parsing the characters we’re implicitly assumed to identify with, and parsing them in ways that include discussions of their power in relation to others—their class, their race, their logics of violence—asks us to go beyond identification. To make a reference to the title of my essay on Joan Didion, “Main Character Syndrome,” the need to identify with Odysseus or Polyphemus is ultimately still part of that main character syndrome logic of fiction, part of the heroic impulse or, alternately, what Ursula K. Le Guin called “the killer story” in her essay “The Carrier Bag of Fiction”: “Lest there be no more telling of stories at all, some of us out here in the wild oats, amid the alien corn, think we’d better start telling another [story], which maybe people can go on with when the old one’s finished. Maybe. The trouble is, we’ve all let ourselves become part of the killer story, and so we may get finished along with it.”

Getting out of the killer story, getting out of the bind of identification, getting out of the heroic impulse, lets us enter into the much thornier realm of intimacy, and even recognition—especially unforeseen intimacy and unforeseen recognition. The truth is, I think most of us recognize parts of ourselves in both Odysseus and Polyphemus. The parts of ourselves that are charismatic, that love to tell stories; the parts of ourselves that are adventurers, or unfaithful, or great thinkers, or irresponsible leaders, or distracted by our lusts, our ego. The parts of ourselves that know what it means to have one’s home invaded, exploited, rendered unlivable; the parts of ourselves that have sought revenge, that have chosen violence, that long for retribution; the parts of us that have never been the hero. It’s easy to say, “Well, let’s just switch and identify with Polyphemus instead.” But that way lies more killer stories. Instead, to read Polyphemus’ story with the same attention that we read Odysseus’ means we might actually be able to understand a story like his—might give it the time and space that we otherwise lavish upon the stories of characters like Odysseus. And in doing so, we might be able to read both stories more truly, more fully. If we stop looking for heroes, we might actually find people.

How to Read Now takes our most aspirational notions about reading—that it builds empathy, that it combats prejudice—and turns them on their heads.
Review by

Elaine Castillo’s How to Read Now is both a directive and a question. Castillo, a Filipinx American novelist (America Is Not the Heart), calls for readers to recognize and resist the ways that texts of all kinds center whiteness. But the book isn’t only a polemic; it’s also an investigation. How should we read now?

In critical essays that examine everything from fantasy novels to award-winning classic literature, Castillo outlines the limitations of America’s reading culture. Her voice is eviscerating, dramatic and funny as she lays out the ways that universalizing the white experience reduces writers of color to teachers of historical trauma and nonwhite cultures. What would it mean for publishing to be open to something new, to what Castillo calls “the unexpected reader”?

“Trying to read more slowly has been the great ongoing failure of my adult life.” Read our Q&A with Elaine Castillo.

In each essay, Castillo offers a specific and persuasive diagnosis of a problem and a sense of what the treatment might be. For example, the essay “Main Character Syndrome” explores how centering whiteness plays out in the work of recently deceased cultural icon Joan Didion, noting how Didion’s famous essays about California focus on the perspective of a settler, including her obsession with the ruts caused by wagon wheels. Castillo then counters with the work of Tommy Pico, showing what this Indigenous writer sees in the California landscape that Didion missed.

The effects of centuries of colonialism are dangerous and wide-ranging, as Castillo documents throughout How to Read Now. It’s important to make small ruptures in the system, she says—small acts of resistance through everyday decisions, including which stories we tell and value. In this book, Castillo argues that being a good reader means learning how to interrogate and interpret the stories all around us.

In How to Read Now, Elaine Castillo brilliantly argues that being a good reader means learning how to interrogate and interpret the stories all around us.

Sign Up

Stay on top of new releases: Sign up for our enewsletters to receive reading recommendations in your favorite genres.

Recent Reviews

Carter Sickels’ The Prettiest Star imagines a difficult prodigal son homecoming. It’s 1986, and Brian Jackson has returned to his small southern Ohio hometown. Six years before, Brian left home for New York City, where he found friends, a measure of acceptance and love with his partner, Shawn. Now Brian is 24 and ill with late-stage AIDS. He’s also alone; Shawn has already died, isolated in a hospital ward. 

Author Interviews

Recent Features

Sign Up

Sign up to receive reading recommendations in your favorite genres!