The Apple Store captures everything I don't like about today’s mall. A trip here is never easy—the place is packed and chaotic, even on weekdays. It runs by its own private logic, cashier and help desks replaced by roving youths in seasonally changing, colored T-shirts holding iPads, directing traffic.
Apple operates some stand-alone retail locations, including a glass cube entrance in midtown Manhattan and a laptop-shaped location on Chicago’s Michigan Avenue. But a lot of the stores are located in shopping malls. The Apple Store is one of the only reasons I go to the mall anymore. Usually I get in and out as fast as I can. But today I’m stuck.
When all is said and done, it turns out to be a strange relief. Contrary to popular opinion, malls are great, and they always were.
“You instigate valiantly, and then second guess. … You know your problem? No follow-through.” Emperor Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh) hisses these words to Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) in the final episode of the first season of Star Trek: Discovery, in a moment so meta it nearly leaps off the screen. What has happened to the series that, when it ended its midseason finale last November, was not only the best opening season of any Trek series, but easily the best run of back-to-back episodes the Star Trek franchise has ever produced? What went wrong? How did the promise of those early episodes land us here? Discovery, like Star Trek: Beyond before it, is fine, I guess — but when Captain Gabriel Lorca (Jason Isaacs) typed those bogus coordinates and hijacked the ship last November, he hijacked the series too. Nothing has been quite right since.
The problem truly is follow-through. Since November, Discovery has careened from one ill-advised “shocking” plot twist to another — Mirror Universe! Secret Klingons! Neck Snap! Evil Captain! Another Evil Captain! Oops, Genocide! Uh, Nevermind! — without doing the deeper work necessary to make each twist sensible either on its own terms or in terms of the larger Star Trek mythos of which this is, ostensibly, an important but heretofore hidden chapter. In fact, what has typically happened is that the Big Twist has served as the opportunity to summarily eject a previously established plot line from the series. The discovery that Ash Tyler is really Voq, or that Lorca is really Mirror Lorca, or that Emperor Georgiou’s plan is to destroy the Klingon home world — each of these revelations serves not as the springboard for new narrative developments but rather as that story arc’s unnaturally abrupt conclusion.
On my last visit, I saw students studying, a retiree reading Shakespeare out of a big leather-bound edition, a family filling out visa applications they printed, and a kid in headphones making beats in Ableton. This is a nice representation of the world as I wish it to be—all creation, appreciation, education, and exploration. The library is what brought them together, and it asks for nothing back. Its purpose is fulfilled by all of us using it. That means, I think, that the library is one of the best places to get a real and generous sense of the city. How does a city wish to be? Look to the library. A library is the gift a city gives to itself.
This all sounds very rosy and pure, but the first visit to the library as an adult can be a little unnerving. It feels like you are doing something wrong by being there. What’s the catch? Is it a trap? How often is nothing expected of us? It is so rare in New York (and in many other places), because our presence is expected to be the start of a transaction. New York City has some of the most expensive real estate in the world, so every square inch must be monetized. That is why it is so special that this big, beautiful building is plopped right in the center of everything. Just a few blocks away from the mania of Times Square, Samuel Tilden’s gift sits waiting for anyone who wants to open it.
Despite the abundance of quit-lit out there, we’re still not, as a community of scholars, doing a great job dealing with this thing that happens to us all the time. The genre is almost universally written by those leaving, not those left behind, a reflection of the way we insulate ourselves from grappling with what it means for dozens, hundreds, thousands of our colleagues to leave the field.
Quit-lit exists to soothe the person leaving, or provide them with an outlet for their sorrow or rage, or to allow them to make an argument about what needs to change. Those left behind, or, as we usually think of them, those who “succeeded”, don’t often write about what it means to lose friends and colleagues. To do so would be to acknowledge not only the magnitude of the loss but also that it was a loss at all. If we don’t see the loss of all of these scholars as an actual loss to the field, let alone as the loss of so many years of people’s lives, is it any wonder I felt I had no right to grieve? Why should I be sad about what has happened when the field itself won’t be?
When I first mentioned my idea of writing a memoir to David Carr, he told me that I needed to “visit a foreign land where writers live.”
“That bag of tricks of journalism — anecdote, blah bidy blah, flick of the smarty pants here and there, juicy quote, more blah bidy blah, which you and I own and know, is no help here,” The Times’s beloved media columnist emailed me weeks before he died.
Three years later when I sat down to write my first book — a memoir about how covering Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaigns consumed the formative years of my 20s and 30s — I wished I could ask David what he meant by that foreign land. How did I get there?
“The first duty of love is to listen,” Paul Tillich advised, and the attendant duties of love are also the real subject of Li-Young Lee’s stunning sixth book, The Undressing. No surprise then that “Listen” should be the first word of this collection. The lengthy, opening title poem begins with the speaker apparently more interested in undressing his lover than he is interested in listening to her: “I unbutton the top button of her blouse/and nibble her throat with kisses/Go on, I say, I’m listening.”
It is a bold move to open with such a sensual poem, but it is quickly clear this poem is not “just” a love poem. It’s also about the personal relationships between author and speaker(s) and audience, between the present and the past, and even human beings to language since “The world/is a story that keeps beginning” and every word “has many lives.” Because this collection is obsessed with language—its necessity and its limits—Lee brilliantly engages with a polyphony of voices to undress (and address and redress) words. It is an intensely personal investigation, a truly great mind in dialogue with itself and with the universe.