At the start of April, I ran down a list of the major media I’d consumed in the first quarter of 2019. Looking back now, I see that I was plowing through books, in large part because I commute by train, where I have roughly two hours to kill with no internet access each weekday, and in the summer I work from home a lot more.
10 movies, 9 books, 6 TV series: A media diary
In December, I resolved that in 2019 I would track my media consumption more closely in an effort to become more…
But there was another reason I didn’t get to as many books, something which highlights why I’ve been trying to read more books and which I’ll explain further below. As before, I tallied only those books, movies, and TV show seasons I had not completed previously or with which I still felt unfamiliar, even if I’d seen or read them before.
Also, I spent weeks struggling with two different books before abandoning them, something I don’t do often (except for when, every few years, against my better judgment, I try to read Infinite Jest, get about 300–330 pages in, and grow weary of the teenage-boy dumbassery).
Dreams from my Father, by Barack Obama, is weighted down by subsequent history, but even if I’d read it when Obama was merely the junior senator from Illinois, I suspect I’d have trouble getting through the sheer ponderousness of the prose to actually care about the young man at the center of the story. Throughout, it feels as if Obama needs to tell us explicitly that there’s deep meaning to his experience, when letting the story stand for itself would have sufficed.
The other book was The Human Stain, by the late Philip Roth. I read it for class as an undergrad, and remembered the outline of the plot, but a decade and a half on, I had to give up pretty quickly because what sticks out now is how much the novel wants the reader to sympathize with Bill Clinton in the wake of the Lewinsky scandal, and, via similar framing, Coleman Silk in the wake of his own conflicts with undergraduates and fellow faculty who demand he be responsible for the power he wields over other people. That the narrator (and, it seems, Roth) derides anyone calling out Clinton over his actions with Lewinsky as sanctimonious is distasteful. Setting up Coleman’s affair with Faunia Farley as an old man’s version of a Manic Pixie Dream Girl that he gets to “rescue” from abusive relationship cycles is nauseating, exhausting, et cetera, and I don’t want to deal with it. (Ctrl+F: I’m having an affair, Nathan.)
Also not included below are the email newsletters I read regularly, from Will Leitch and Anne Helen Petersen. I subscribe to The New Yorker magazine. I like listening to the Deadcast, The Right Time with Bomani Jones, The Lowe Post, Chapo Trap House, and WTF with Marc Maron podcasts. Aside from Twitter and Facebook and Instagram, the websites I read regularly are Deadspin, Hmm Daily (too bad it’s ceasing publication later this month), Kottke, and the free Dear Prudence columns on Slate.
Let’s get to it. This is my list of major media I finished during the second three months of 2019, in rough order of completion date, with brief comments about each work
“Apollo 11” • d. Todd Douglas Miller
I’m very happy I saw this in a theater. Even if you don’t get to see the Saturn rocket blast off in cleaned-up high definition on a big screen, the documentary is well worth watching because you’re unlikely to know many of the details that made the Apollo 11 mission so risky, like the precise mechanics of retrieving the Eagle lander.
“Tidying Up With Marie Kondo”
Disposable Netflix content. Learn the Konmari method for folding clothes, and you’ll get 90% of the value from her book and TV show combined.
“Enchanted” • d. Kevin Lima
Turns a neat trick of appearing to subvert Disney-style fairytale romances without actually subverting anything. With the benefit of hindsight, it seems really odd that Idina Menzel has a key supporting role and doesn’t sing.
Of Mice and Men • John Steinbeck
Somehow, I’d never read it before, nor had I seen any of its various dramatic productions, but I’d still gathered the gist of it over the years. It was still very much worth reading, even though I knew exactly where it was going.
“The Princess and the Frog” • d. Ron Clements, John Musker
The plot is flimsy. Prince Naveen is the kind of horny man-child I’d suggest Tiana avoid, especially given his embrace of cocky-funny strategies. But on the other hand, Randy Newman is a minor genius and this movie might have the deepest collection of songs, front to back, of any Disney production this side of “Frozen.”
“Despicable Me 2” • d. Pierre Coffin, Chris Renaud
A waste of time. It’s telling that “Minions” is the best movie in the franchise, mainly because that one barely bothers with plot in favor of gags, which is for the best. At least it’s better than any of the “Hotel Transylvania” disasters.
“Pokémon Detective Pikachu” • d. Rob Letterman
You don’t need to know much about Pokémon lore to enjoy this movie, though a little bit of knowledge goes a long way. It’s way better than it had to be. Like, just look at how bad the Sonic movie appears, and appreciate that the filmmakers went to extra lengths to build this world and imbue their story with actual emotional resonance.
Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet • Jamie Ford
A moving novel about aging, love, social injustice, and racism set in Seattle and jumping back and forth between World War II and 1986. While, overall, I wouldn’t put it on the same level as Snow Falling on Cedars, David Guterson’s masterpiece that also addresses Japanese internment during World War II and also is mainly set in the Puget Sound region, Hotel is different enough to recommend, especially because its segments set in 1986 explore ideas about growing old with which I’ve started wrestling and which I wished had been hashed out more.
“Black Mirror: Bandersnatch” • d. David Slade
Classic “Black Mirror” fare. (Spoiler alert! Skip the rest of this entry if you don’t want a spoiler!) I wish I could bottle up the sensation I got when I was prompted to tell Stefan about Netflix.
Winter’s Bone • Daniel Woodrell
I was skeptical that this slim novel written by a man would properly respect its teenaged female protagonist, but I’m happy to report that skepticism was completely eradicated about 10 pages in. The plot is a cracker, but what makes Winter’s Bone a page-turner is the carefully layered web of conditional relationships said protagonist, Ree Dolly, must negotiate in order to achieve her goals. Even Ree’s one overwhelmingly positive relationship, with Gail, comes with conditions: Gail has Ned, and she’s trying to make it work with her husband, and no, she can’t just take the truck whenever she likes.
“Winter’s Bone” • d. Debra Granik
Beautifully staged and shot. Every choice that makes the film differ from the novel makes sense. After watching this, I would be fascinated to see what kind of Star Wars movie Granik could write and direct.
“When They See Us” • d. Ava DuVernay
Much like “The Wire,” if you already know the broad strokes of the Central Park Five’s story, and if you already believe there’s a major issue with institutional racism in American law enforcement and the American penal system, there probably isn’t much for you here. However, if you’re not so well-versed on those topics, I can see how this dramatization could make you empathize.
“So I Married an Axe Murderer” • d. Thomas Schlamme
“Woman! Whoaaaaaaa, man!” It’s weird to watch Mike Myers trying to act like a young, hip, dude when that’s emphatically not what his most iconic characters are (Wayne Campbell is an insecure perpetually-teenaged nerd and Austin Powers is an aging hipster). The movie is fine as these things go, but I’ve got a soft spot for it because a few shots show mid-90s San Francisco in all its glory, the city I remember and still picture when I think about where I grew up.
“The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants” • d. Ken Kwapis
The Blake Lively storyline is cringeworthy, but the other three stories, while certainly fantastic in some respects, have plenty of nuance and genuinely earned feeling driving them. I can’t speak to being a teenaged girl, but somehow, I felt like this movie captures that constant charge that 17-year-olds feel as they try to figure out what it means to leave childhood behind, even if they don’t consciously understand what’s happening.
The Confidence Game • Maria Konnikova
I wanted to like it more, but many of the anecdotes seemed dry, and I kept wishing Konnikova would provide more straightforward analytical explanations of how various cons worked on their victims. There seemed like precious few instances when she would actually connect the dots for the reader that, say, a con artist was preying on a certain family’s need to feel validated as an important piece of world history, or whatever.
“The Dropout Podcast”
I started this audio report on the Theranos scandal at the end of June, then paused and read John Carreyrou’s book, Bad Blood, then completed the podcast at the start of July. The podcast adds value by letting us hear several principals, including Elizabeth Holmes, Sunny Balwani, and others, in their own voices, whether speaking to the “Dropout” reporters or recorded in depositions, plus it covers some ground after the events covered in Bad Blood. But it’s mostly rendered extraneous by the book, which is engrossing throughout. I’m still gathering my thoughts about it.
Out of the Park Baseball XX (computer game, time suck)
Out of the Park Baseball XX is a text-based computer game that simulates running a baseball franchise. A big appeal of the game is that it allows the gamer to play in a simulation of our world, where Major League Baseball and Minor League Baseball and the Japanese leagues et cetera exist, or the gamer can create a new reality, with either minor changes to the existing structure or a completely new, fictionalized universe. You can start in the 1800s or the present day. It’s a shockingly deep game.
I played a couple seasons as the general manager of the San Francisco Giants, starting in 2019, but then rebooted and started over as general manager of the Miami Marlins in 2019, which, if you know anything about baseball, is a much tougher challenge. The only alteration I made to the universe was applying the DH to the National League, and immediately set about stripping down the Marlins to the studs.
I won’t go over everything, because you don’t care about my video game exploits, but over 11 seasons, my Marlins had won the 2023, 2028, and 2029 World Series, and were on the brink of a dynasty. At which point I quit the Marlins job to take over as San Diego Padres GM, and then looked up and realized I’d probably sunk anywhere from 80 to 120 hours into this game and decided I’d had enough.
There are people who have simulated out into the 2080s in this game, probably playing with even more intensity than I did (you can actually manage each game on a pitch-to-pitch basis, if you wish, and many people do). I have no desire to fall back into that hole.
Several times over the years, I’ve had to drag myself back into the light. It happened with MLB: The Show, NCAA Football 14, Red Dead Redemption, and Grand Theft Auto 4. But it really happened with NBA 2K9. When I finally lost interest in continuing my franchise, I realized I’d played upwards of 800 hours making trades, scouting prospects, drafting, and playing every minute of every game in an 82-game schedule, plus playoffs.
This is why I don’t buy video games anymore. We still have a PS3 because it’s a Blu-ray player, and I’ve disposed of all the game discs I had.
OOTP is a fun game, but it costs too much. Not money. I paid $40, and you can get it cheaper now that we’re past the All-Star Game. It costs too much for me in life resources.
One of my motivations in tracking my media consumption is to remind myself of what I’m feeding my brain. For a long time, my job more or less required that I stay hooked in to Twitter all day, and I’m a Very Online Dude as a result. But I also know that mainlining streams of quick-hitting media all day — whether that’s Twitter, Facebook, cable news, or whatever — rots one’s brain by training it to crave that kind of feedback. I don’t want to be the kind of person who needs regular serotonin hits from a constant flow of likes because I don’t like how that implies said person would treat others in face-to-face contact. I want to be the kind of person who can think in many different ways about many different topics, and that means I have to read physical books and magazines as well as web content.
Playing this game interfered with that project. It made me seek satisfaction in each simulated “game” (162 in each regular season!), each “trade proposal”, each “accomplishment”.
And for what? Unlike the best video game I’ve ever played, Red Dead Redemption, or several others, OOTP taught me nothing. It made me reconsider nothing. It illustrated nothing about the world that I hadn’t noticed before. It’s a closed loop, a self-contained accomplishment program. That I did well at the game has virtually no other application to anything else I might do, whereas, for example, how one thinks about Red Dead Redemption says something essential about his or her politics.
I should have read six books instead.