James Comey vs. Donald Trump: An indictment in the form of a memoir

James_Comey_official_portrait (1)

Former FBI Director James Comey. Public domain image.

By Steve Sebelius

James Comey is a good lawyer, having received his law degree from the University of Chicago, served as a federal prosecutor in the Southern District of New York, then later as U.S. attorney in that same office. He finally rose to deputy attorney general, the No. 2 man in the entire Department of Justice.

We all know how his last job ended — fired as director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which news he learned from a TV set in the bureau’s Los Angeles field office that was tuned to CNN.

But more on that in a moment.

Comey’s newly released (and heavily promoted) book, A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership, is built like a good court case. The former prosecutor seeds the text with ideas that he will later call upon to prove to his jury of readers that the president of the United States in an insensate, incurious, narcissistic, insecure, possibly compromised bully more akin to a La Cosa Nostra crime boss than an American president.

Exhibit A: A former victim of schoolhouse bullying, Comey confesses later to becoming the tormentor himself. “In the face of the herd, our tendency is to go quiet and let the group’s brain and soul handle things,” Comey writes. “But by imagining the group has these centers, we abdicate responsibility, which allows groups to be hijacked by the loudest voice, the person who knows how brainless groups really are and uses that to his advantage.”

Sound at all familiar?

Exhibit B: Comey, who stands 6 feet 8 inches tall, admits to tiring of answering the question of whether he’d played basketball in college (he did not) by simply saying yes. He says he was so bothered by his seemingly innocuous lie, he wrote to the friends he had misled and admitted the truth. He didn’t want lying to become a habit and lose the ability to distinguish truth from falsehood. Those who do, he writes, “surround themselves with other liars. The circle becomes smaller and smaller, with those unwilling to surrender their moral compass pushed out and those willing to tolerate deceit brought closer to the center of power.” 

Exhibit C: Comey defends his prosecutions of Martha Stewart and I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby (recently pardoned by President Trump) on charges they lied to the FBI about selling stocks and leaking the identity of a once-undercover CIA operative, respectively. “People must fear the consequences of lying in the justice system, or the system can’t work,” he writes, adding later, “I would discover in the coming months that the pressures to bend the rules and to make convenient exceptions to laws when they got in the way of the president’s agenda were tempting.”

Exhibit D: Comey fought the use of torture by the CIA in the wake of Sept. 11, and in doing so, faced off with then-Vice President Dick Cheney and his staff. “They were driven by one of the most powerful and disconcerting forces in human nature — confirmation bias,” he wrote. “Our brains have evolved to crave information consistent with what we already believe. We seek out and focus on facts and arguments that support our beliefs.”

He might as well have been speaking about the American electorate and their absorption of news in 2016.

Exhibit E: When President Barack Obama selected Comey to head the FBI, the president told him: “I don’t want help from the FBI on policy. I need competence and independence. I need to sleep at night knowing the place is well run and the American people protected.”

After Obama had designated Comey as his choice, they had another meeting in the Oval Office, with the White House counsel present. “The president opened the conversation by explaining, ‘Once you are director, we won’t be able to talk like this.’ What he meant was that for more than 40 years, the leaders of our government understood that a president and an FBI director must be at arm’s length,” Comey wrote.

Things would soon change.

Exhibit F: Laughter, which Obama and President George W. Bush did. “Having a balance of confidence and humility is essential to effective leadership. Laughing in a genuine way requires a certain level of confidence,” Comey writes, “because we all look a little silly laughing; that makes us vulnerable, a state insecure people fear.”

Exhibit G: Listening. “To be effective at the FBI, I spent a lot of time listening, something we all struggle to do well. It is hard for leaders to listen well because it requires us to be vulnerable, to risk our superior position,” Comey writes. His exemplar? President Obama. “He was an extraordinary listener, as good as any I’ve seen in leadership. In various meetings with the president, I watched him work hard to draw as many viewpoints into a conversation, frequently disregarding the hierarchy reflected in seating arrangements — principals at the table, lower-ranked folks in chairs against the wall.”

Now, with the exhibits entered into evidence, Comey makes his summation to the jury.

  • Trump, in contrast to Bush and Obama, was self-centered, even after being told Russia had attacked the nation during the 2016 election. “What I found telling was what Trump and his team didn’t ask. They were about to lead a country that had been attacked by a foreign adversary, yet they had no questions about what the future Russian threat might be. Nor did they ask about how the United States might prepare itself to meet that threat.”
  • Trump was insecure. At a private dinner attended only by Comey and the president, Trump said he could make a change at the top of the FBI. “I need loyalty. I expect loyalty,” Trump told Comey. “This, of course, was not something I could ever conceive of Obama doing, or George W. Bush, for that matter. To my mind, the demand was like Sammy the Bull’s Cosa Nostra induction ceremony — with Trump in the role of family boss, asking me if I have what it takes to be a ‘made man.’ I did not, and would never.” And later: “Ethical leaders never ask for loyalty. Those leading through fear — like a Cosa Nostra boss — require personal loyalty.” It was after this dinner that Comey began a practice unique in his government service: writing contemporaneous memos to memorialize his conversations with the president, in the event he needed them later.
  • Trump doesn’t laugh much, if at all, in public. “…but I don’t know of another elected leader who doesn’t laugh with some regularity in public. I suspect his inherent inability to do so is rooted in deep insecurity, his inability to be vulnerable or to risk himself by appreciating the humor of others, which, on reflection is really very sad in a leader, and a little scary in a president.”
  • Trump speaks often and unrelentingly, perhaps to avoid disagreement. “As a result, Trump pulls all those present into a silent circle of assent. With him talking a mile a minute, with no spot for others to jump into the conversation, I could see how easily everyone in the room could become a co-conspirator to his preferred set of facts, or delusions.”
  • Trump asked for outcomes to investigations. The president told Comey in a private meeting, “I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting [former National Security Adviser Michael] Flynn go. He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go.” He also repeatedly complained about the “cloud” that the Russia investigation had laid upon his administration, implying that Comey could relieve him of that burden.
  • Trump fired Comey without so much as an email, with Comey out of town visiting the Los Angeles FBI office. And Trump exploded in rage when then-FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe (later also fired after Trump’s public complaints) allowed Comey to return to Washington, D.C., in an FBI jet, although he was no longer the director.
  • Trump lies without apparent conscience. “I see no evidence that a lie ever caused Trump pain, or that he ever recoiled from causing another person pain, which is sad and frightening,” Comey wrote.
  • We’re all to blame: “We all bear responsibility for the deeply flawed choices put before voters during the 2016 election, and our country is paying a high price: this president is unethical, untethered to truth and institutional values. His leadership is transactional, ego driven and about personal loyalty.”

Comey begins his book by asking the reader a reasonable question: Who the hell is he to deign to talk about ethical leadership? “Anyone claiming to write a book about ethical leadership can come across as presumptuous and even sanctimonious,” he acknowledges.

But in A Higher Loyalty, Comey compares and contrasts his own life, his own experiences and his own ethical compass against that of the president he so briefly and unhappily served. His builds his case painstakingly to prove that Trump is bereft of not just the qualities that Comey strove to develop, not just the qualities that his immediate predecessors possessed, but the qualities that a human being most needs to do the job of president.

How will the jury find? It has two long years to render its verdict.

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The director and the candidate: James Comey and the problem of Hillary Clinton’s emails


Secretary of State Hillary Clinton testifying in 2009. Public domain image.

By Steve Sebelius

There comes a point in former FBI Director James Comey’s new book — A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership — in which he concludes a self-examination of his investigation into Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s emails by saying “But I also think reasonable people might we have handled it differently.”

Consider me that reasonable person.

There are many — Democrats primarily — who believe Comey’s actions in 2016 cost Clinton the election by providing Republicans and Donald Trump grounds to question her honesty. It’s never easy running for office while one is under FBI investigation.

First, let’s get a few things out of the way. Comey acknowledges there was never any indication in any of the emails his investigators reviewed that indicated Clinton or anyone else involved in those electronic conversations knew or suspected what they were doing was wrong or illegal. Everyone on the email chains had the security clearance (and a work-related reason) to know and discuss the information in question. Clinton did not lie to FBI investigators about what she’d done, at least not in a way that could be proven in court. And, finally, “no fair-minded person with any experience in the counterespionage world … could think this was a case the career prosecutors of the Department of Justice might pursue. There was literally zero chance of that.”

Second, it also must be said that Comey’s investigators found 36 email chains that discussed information classified as “secret,” and eight times in which they discussed information classified as “top secret” at the time the emails were sent. (“Secret” classification applies to information that would cause “serious” damage to national security if released, and “top secret” information is that which would cause “exceptionally grave” damaged to national security if released.)

That, Comey says, is something these officials should have known not to do. “Anyone who had ever been granted a security clearance should have known that talking about top-secret information on an unclassified system was a breach of rules governing classified materials,” he notes.

That was his dilemma during the 2016 election: Comey believed Clinton and her aides had behaved carelessly with classified information, but did not have sufficient information to sustain a successful prosecution. With the national attention fixed on the political race — and partisans from both sides waiting to pounce on the outcome — he was, as the bureau’s deputy director told him at the time, “totally screwed.”

The news conference

After a team had completed its review of all the emails that could be found (some had been lost in a server switch; other, supposedly personal, emails had been erased), Comey held a news conference.

Instead of simply referring the case to the Justice Department with a recommendation of no charges, Comey elected to excoriate Clinton and her staff for being “extremely careless” in their handling of information. The windup sounded like a grand jury would soon be meeting, but Comey instead ended by saying he’d recommended no charges.

Comey explains there are exceptions to the FBI’s policy of not commenting on cases, one of which is when the investigation has been in the public eye. (Although he admits there is a “powerful norm” that the bureau and the Justice Department should try to avoid any action before an election that could affect its outcome, a norm he’d repeatedly ignore.)

Comey further explains he was concerned that the bureau’s “reservoir” of credibility, filled slowly over years with painstakingly professional and through investigations, could quickly be drained with a tight-lipped referral.

“When we stand up, whether in a courtroom or at a cookout, and identify ourselves as part of those organizations [the FBI and the Justice Department] total strangers believe what we say, because of that reservoir. Without it, we are just another partisan player in a polarized world,” Comey writes. “The FBI must be an ‘other’ in this country or we are lost.”

Understandable, even reasonable. But what if Comey had instead said this: “The FBI has completed its investigation into Secretary Clinton’s use of a private server to send official government emails. We’re reviewed hundreds of documents and interviewed dozens of witnesses, including the secretary herself. We are now forwarding the case to the Department of Justice for review. Thank you.”

Surely, there would be critics. Surely, there would be claims of coverups, conspiracy and crimes. Surely, the FBI would be criticized.

But would the situation have been better or worse for Comey’s reservoir than it was with his approach?

“As I expected, people on both sides of the partisan divide in Washington were very angry,” he acknowledged. “Republicans were furious that I had failed to recommend prosecution in a case that ‘obviously’ warranted it.” And Democrats, we know, accused Comey of helping Trump, and would again closer to Election Day.

The election-eve letter

The matter rested, until, in an unrelated investigation of former Congressman Anthony Weiner’s creepy online conduct, FBI agents stumbled across hundreds of thousands of emails from Clinton’s private server, some of which agents believed they had not uncovered in the original investigation. (Weiner was at the time married to Huma Abedin, a top Clinton aide.)

The emails might change the conclusion of the earlier probe, Comey realized, setting up a key question: Should he inform Congress (he’d told lawmakers the case was closed) or remain silent, with the election just days away?

Obviously, the emails would have to be reviewed, which would require a search warrant for the laptop. But the timing was such that agents could not possibly review the newly discovered material before Election Day.

Comey chose to speak. His description of his options — “speak or conceal” — is a false choice in my view, primarily because he didn’t know at the time whether the emails were even relevant to the investigation or not, and as such, there was nothing definitive to say either way! Or, as a lawyer might say, the prejudicial effect of revealing the emails clearly outweighed any probative value in speaking.

Yes, there were some powerful arguments on Comey’s side. First, seeking the search warrant opened the circle of people who knew about the new emails wide enough that the story might very well have leaked. Second, Comey was concerned that if the emails did show prosecutable actions on Clinton’s part — but were not revealed until after the election — she’d be a tainted president, possibly subject to criminal process while in office. And third, failing to speak up might implicate Comey, the FBI and the Justice Department as partisans engaged in a coverup.

“To remain silent at this point, while taking the step of getting a search warrant to review thousands of Hillary Clinton’s emails … would be an affirmative act of concealment, which would mean the director of the FBI had misled — and was continuing to mislead — Congress and the American people,” Comey wrote.

But let me suggest a contrary point: Comey at that moment had no idea whatsoever what was in these newly discovered emails. (We’d later find none were relevant to the inquiry.) He couldn’t possibly know whether he’d misled anyone until his team reviewed them. And given the fact that revealing the case had been temporarily re-opened just days before voters went to the polls would unquestionably have an impact on the election, he could easily have justified remaining silent until there was something substantive to report.

“We made arguments against our arguments, but even with a dozen perspectives, we kept coming back to the same place: the credibility of the institutions of justice was at stake,” Comey wrote. Indeed. But how intact was that credibility after he potentially tainted the election, and then revealed there was nothing in the new evidence to change his earlier conclusion? Better or worse? Surely, he’d be criticized either way, but only in one way would he potentially affect the course of the election.

In fact, Comey was asked by one member of his team whether his action might help elect Trump. Wrote Comey: “’It is a great question,’ I said, ‘but not for a moment can I consider it. Because down that path lies the death of the FBI as an independent force in American life. If we start making decisions based on whose political fortunes will be affected, we are lost.’”

Comey acknowledged in testimony before Congress that the idea that his decision had an impact on the election left him feeling “mildly nauseous.” Indeed, it earned him the contempt of Democrats, and even — he says later — praise from Trump, who saw the first news conference as a help to Clinton but the late-season letter as a help to the Trump campaign.

Comey was generous enough to suggest reasonable people might disagree with his conclusion, and he should be extended the same courtesy in return. Surely, he is at pains to extensively document his motivations. And I am willing to concede that doing things the way I’ve suggested here would have left Comey no less totally screwed than he was for doing things his way. But given the unknowns in the Weiner laptop trove of emails, and the near-certainty of affecting an election just days away, a dose of old-fashioned, buttoned-down FBI probity might have served Comey better.


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An unusual president: At the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, authors and journalists discuss covering the president in unique times

LATFOB panel

David Lauter, left, moderates a panel at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books April 22 with authors Michael Isikoff and David Corn, discussing their book, Russian Roulette: The Inside Story of Putin’s War on America and the Election of Donald Trump.

By Steve Sebelius

LOS ANGELES – There’s nothing surprising about saying Donald John Trump is not your usual president. From the moment he descended the escalator in his gilded headquarters in midtown Manhattan to whatever he wrote in this morning’s tweetstorm, Trump has broken with the norms of nearly all of his predecessors.

And that presents something of a dilemma for the people who write about him for mass audiences.

At the annual Los Angeles Times Festival of Books this month, journalists and authors took on that subject in a variety of panels and conversations, lamenting Trump’s frequent attacks on the media but resisting the idea that they should strike back.

Los Angeles Times Washington bureau chief David Lauter quoted one of his chief competitors, Wall Street Journal Editor Marty Baron, who’s famously dismissed the president’s identification of the media as “the enemy” by replying, “We’re not at war; we’re at work.”

But that work has become exponentially more difficult thanks to a candidate, and later a president, who has consistently sought to undermine the press by casting down on its credibility, accuracy and fairness. He boycotted last weekend’s White House Correspondents’ Association dinner, asking why he’d want to be a in room with a “. . . bunch of fake new liberals who hate me?”

In the face of that rhetoric, Lauter said, it’s critical not to get thrown off stride and act like the press really is at war with Trump and his administration. In fact, despite his disdain for the press, Trump enjoys talking to reporters more than his predecessor, Barack Obama, Lauter said. And thanks to the rival factions in the Trump White House, there’s more leaking than there was in the “no drama” Obama administration.

Institutions, norms under attack

But Brian Bennett, who recently left the L.A. Times to cover the White House for Time magazine, noted Trump’s attacks aren’t just limited to the press. He’s taken on his own attorney general, Jeff Sessions, the FBI, the Justice Department and the courts. When that happens, Bennett said, the press must point it out, because the country depends on its institutions.

That’s something Sarah Kendzior, author of The View from Flyover Country, echoes. “The system relies on norms as much as it does on laws, and both are very vulnerable,” she said during a panel discussion about Trump’s first year. “It’s reasonable to expect autocracy but that’s different from accepting autocracy.”

Writers on the Trump panel agreed Trump’s rapid-fire tweeting, executive orders and often ad-hoc policymaking are distracting to journalists trying to cover the big picture of what’s actually getting done, or not getting done, in government. (That’s why journalist David Cay Johnston says he founded DCreport.org, a website dedicated to exposing what he called “termites” eroding institutions from within and grinding down the government’s ability to accomplish its work.)

Steve Almond, author of Bad Stories: What the Hell Just Happened to Our Country, and a teacher at Harvard’s Nieman Fellowship for Journalism,  said the system itself needs to be examined. A bad political actor can be voted out at the next election, but if citizens don’t confront the factors that led to that person’s election in the first place, the nation remains vulnerable. (His book is an effort to understand the reasons Trump appealed to so many in 2016.)

One of those factors? The perception that both government and business were corrupt, something shared by Trump, former Daily Show host Jon Stewart and even liberal Vermont independent Sen. Bernie Sanders. That turned into one of Trump’s biggest lines on the campaign trail, and a rallying cry at the Cleveland GOP convention when Trump declared, “I alone can fix it.”

Johnston noted there were limitations on the press, however. “As journalists, all we can do is to make a record. We can’t make people act on it,” he said.

But Almond added a caveat: People tend to seek out media that amplifies their grievances while minimizing their vulnerabilities. As a result, liberals and conservatives end up hearing an entirely different set of facts, or a completely different spin on the same event.

The rise of alternative fact outlets—think Christopher Ruddy’s Newsmax or Alex Jones’s Infowars—led Lauter to warn that traditional journalists need to attend to their traditional role of providing accurate information to the public now more than ever. Facts, he said, are not simply Nietzsche’s “a lie agreed upon.”

“When you get rid of the gatekeepers, anyone can come through the gates,” he said.

The Russia stuff

The Republican majority on the House Intelligence Committee may have concluded there was no collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia, but that verdict was undercut in advance by panelists in another conversation at the festival. David Corn, the Washington bureau chief for the liberal Mother Jones magazine and co-author of Russian Roulette: The Inside Story of Putin’s War on America and the Election of Donald Trump, said members of that committee were unaware of some of the findings of his book.

That’s not to say the committee was unaware of the work of Corn and his co-author, Yahoo News investigative correspondent Michael Isikoff. The two are the only journalists mentioned in a memo authored by committee chairman Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif.

The authors contend that—notwithstanding Trump’s insistence that he had no business connection to Russia whatsoever—Trump has long wanted to do a real estate deal in Moscow. He brought his Miss Universe pageant to Moscow in 2013 (the fruit of a relationship that began at a dinner and wild evening out here in Las Vegas) partly to forge the political connections necessary to doing business in Russia.

In fact, Trump tweeted the announcement and wondered if Russian President Vladimir Putin and he would become best friends when they met. (They didn’t meet during Trump’s 2013 visit, however, although Putin did send an emissary to the pageant.)

Trump’s bond with an associate of Putin’s at his 2013 Las Vegas dinner, in fact, paved the way for the infamous meeting in Trump Tower during the 2016 election in which Trump campaign officials and family members were allegedly promised damaging information about Hillary Clinton, the authors said.

Said Corn: “These connections are not trivial.”

The Russian attempts to influence the election were the most ambitious effort yet by foreign powers. (The authors revealed Chinese hackers penetrated computer networks in 2008, but only for espionage purposes, not to help one candidate or the other. In 2016, Russians used social media, penetration of both Republican and Democratic committee computer networks and even probing of election databases to achieve their ends, in a program that began as early as 2014.

“But it really was an act of information warfare. It was an attack,” Corn said.

Russia specialists within the Obama administration urged a reprisal, perhaps attacking Russian media or releasing hacked information about Putin and his associates, Isikoff said, but Obama and his advisers held back. They feared the perception that a Democratic president was trying to influence the election for a Democratic candidate. That could have played into Trump’s repeated campaign trail assertion that the election was “rigged.” And attempts to fashion a bipartisan joint statement fell apart after congressional Republican leaders declined to participate.

And, Isikoff added, we’re no safer now than we were in 2016, since the issue divides people along party lines, which makes coming up with a cohesive response strategy difficult. “It is only looked at through the partisan lens,” he said. And Trump seems only to care about the conclusion that no actual votes were altered, and thus the validity of his (electoral college) victory is undisturbed. The president has been reluctant to punish Russia for its election interference, or even to acknowledge the attack occurred, as U.S. intelligence agencies and even some congressional Republicans do.

An audience member at the panel asked Corn and Isikoff whether what Russia did in 2016 was really any different from myriad instances of U.S. intelligence agencies interfering in the elections of other nations.

“My response to that is, does that make it right? Of course not,” Isikoff said. “It’s a war against Western liberal values. I have no patience with that ‘whataboutism’,” he added.

So how will we proceed from here? “At the end of the day, I still have to believe that facts matter, that evidence matters,” Isikoff said.

But the circumstances surrounding the release of the House Intelligence Committee report would suggest otherwise: The majority concluded there was no collusion with Russia, while minority Democrats say the committee failed to properly search for evidence—another example of an institution crippled by partisanship.

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Our Evolving Reading Lives

SCOTT: Let’s begin with a little scene-setting. Lunch yesterday.

You: “You’ve been reading more poetry lately.”

Me: “Don’t say that so loud!”

Point being, I suppose, that my reading habits sometimes evolve faster than my ability to settle into them. Poetry is a new(ish) thing for me. My education didn’t include much — certainly not in high school, and college English was mostly a six-year slalom around dull-sounding classes and into semesters of “The American Novel of Cosmic Absurdity” and “Ecofiction.” Poetry sounded too … flouncy for a non-drinking, drug-free, but generally gonzo-hearted Hunter Thompson disciple like me. It seemed too dedicated to not saying what it meant, at a time when I needed everything spelled out.

That time has apparently passed, because my poetry uptake has spiked, beginning with Michael Robbins’ Alien vs Predator, and hop-lurching randomly across the poetry scene from there. I’ve been guided by enthusiasm for voices rather than an enlarged understanding of what poetry is about — I wouldn’t know a quatrain if it bit me in the sestina. Still, I’m considerably more comfortable these days with the allusive, elusive, sideways style of meaning that poetry entails. Back when the hot velocity of New Journalism was my jam, I couldn’t imagine relishing the quietude that poetry often requires … the slowness of meaning-ingestion, the stillness and focused attention with which poetry is best taken in.

Interestingly, this development parallels another significant change in my reading life: the vanishing of time for stillness and focused attention. There’s something so wall-to-wall about my life these days. (Example: I’m about to spend the weekend traveling for my granddaughter’s dance recital; so much prime reading time lost!) Some days, all the intentionality in the world just can’t compete with the clamor of a job, kids, grandkids, dogs, a cat and the general shrieking vortex of life. What’s the urgent verse of Erin Belieu when my grandson is crawling out the doggy door?

GEOFF: While you’re experiencing a marked reduction in time for focused attention, I’ve seen the opposite, at least when I’m not at work. My wife and I are on our own these days, with our two adult kids in college out of state. Our two cats aren’t all that demanding on my time. They are more attached to my wife. This has left substantial time for intense reading. I haven’t used this newfound time as effectively as I should — damn you, quality television! — at least not yet. But I’ve had the opportunity to dig into some BIG books that in the past I might have bypassed in the hope of having time for them at some future stage of life. That time, it seems, is now.

When I say BIG books, I don’t necessarily mean LONG books, but that’s often the case. One example is The Silmarillion, which is essentially J.R.R. Tolkien’s prequel to The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. If one is an admirer of LOTR, one recognizes that at some point one needs to tackle The Silmarillion, but it’s understandable to want to put off that task as long as possible. The Silmarillion is a tough slog in places. It’s written in a loftier and more stilted style than Tolkien wisely adopted for The Hobbit and LOTR. It’s also not really a cohesive narrative but a collection of stories that make up the Middle-earth mythology. I’m really happy that I read it, and I enjoyed it in places, but it definitely requires that “focused attention” that you described.

A second example I would mention is not a LONG book. It’s not a book that would normally fall into my areas of interest. I guess I would characterize it as intimidating. It turned out it wasn’t intimidating at all. Based on an unimpeachable recommendation, I read Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity. This award-winning book is an astonishing work of immersion journalism. Boo delivers a detailed, nuanced and moving portrait of the poorest of the many, many poor people in India, one of the most alarming cases of economic inequality on the planet. The commitment of time and determination Boo made in order to produce this book is almost impossible to fathom. It’s an important book that I would recommend to everybody.

One more example: A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller Jr. Published in 1960, it’s a science fiction novel without much science in it, at least not of the advanced sort. The story is a product of its time: Earth after the nuclear holocaust, a popular Cold War subject. But not a few days or even a few years after the holocaust. Hundreds of years afterward, so that, one presumes, the radioactive cloud is no longer airborne, its immediate destructive effects a distant memory. Earth is a primitive place at this point, with most of the technological advances of the 20th century long lost, and the discovery of relics from before the holocaust being of interest primarily to a small group of monks living somewhere in Utah. If this doesn’t keep your interest, I don’t know what would! It’s a very interesting novel, far more thought-provoking than most post-apocalyptic fare.

SCOTT: “How did it get so late so soon?” Dr. Seuss once wondered, as do I every time I pick up a book only to realize the day is almost over. A busy life — it’s karma’s way of saying, Tempis fugit, motherfucker! But there are ways to deal with that. Early last year, in a piece on New Year’s resolutions I wrote for a newspaper insert, I publicly declared that I would read 32 books in 2015. It seemed possibly doable, an uptick from the dismal 15-20 books I’d finished the year before. And I figured the gentle pressure of a public declaration — albeit to complete strangers who’d never know if I followed through — might arrest the time-drift and brain-flit that always seem to bog down my reading momentum.

It nearly worked, too. I read 30 books. Some good stuff, too: Ben Lerner’s 10:04, William Gibson’s The Peripheral, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me. But also two David Baldacci potboilers and Lee Child’s latest Reacher, and more about those things later. The main thing is, by giving myself a little structure and the barest nudge of accountability, I gave myself permission to cadge reading time at moments I might’ve otherwise devoted to other activities. (I certainly watched less TV, though I don’t typically watch much.) Totally changed my reading habits. This year, without the forward prod of some declared intent, or even a list of books I plan to get to, I’ve shamefully backslid into the drowsier reading mojo of 2014. Sad. Ah, well, as Coco Chanel reminds us, there’s no sense pounding your fists on the wall hoping to make a door.

Before I leave 2015, I want to say a few words about one of my favorite books from that fertile period: The World Is on Fire by Joni Tevis. There’s been a lot of quacking the last few years about the resurgence of the essay — every decent book festival has a panel devoted to the subject anymore — beginning in some sense with the release of John Jeremiah Sullivan’s Pulphead in 2011. Some collections have been rightly celebrated as part of this trend, Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams, for example, but far too many get only a fraction of the attention they deserve. Tevis’ book is one of them. Her pieces really stretch the capacity of the essay to create meaning. Her method is juxtapositional — she’ll layer several utterly different narrative streams side by side to see what they say to each other. So the title piece has her considering the heyday and legacy of the Nevada Test Site as well as the circumstances of Buddy Holly’s death. Others throw together her naked anxieties about pregnancy, childbirth and motherhood with explorations of industrial ruins or sites from her childhood. There’s not a glib sentence in the entire book, and she brings a lot of raw honesty and fierce writing to bear. It’s one of the best books I’ve read recently.

GEOFF: The larger culture probably would consider me to be a fairly prodigious reader, but I constantly feel I’m barely scratching the surface of the good books available to me. Further, I feel like I’m constantly cracking open the wrong books — not that they aren’t good books but that there are so many other good ones I’m passing over, often for unclear reasons.

The harsh reality is that in my remaining years on the planet, with eyes and brain still functioning sufficiently to absorb words on paper, there’s no way I’m going to read all the books I want to read. In fact, recently I’ve been pruning the books in my house on the premise that the ones going into the boxes in the trunk of the car are highly unlikely to ever rise to the level of “next up” on the reading list. This is a fairly healthy process, I think, but there’s undoubtedly going to be a situation where I’ve gotten rid of a book that at some point down the line I will have new reason to want to read.

At different times over the years, I’ve wanted to spend more of my reading time on literary classics, but right or wrong these enthusiasms have dimmed again and again. I have, in fact, read some great classic novels all the way through, and I’m happy about it. Moby Dick, for example, and Anna Karenina, and Madame Bovary. But I’ve started many more that still have the bookmarks sticking out of them about a third or halfway through. Two recent examples are Bleak House and Middlemarch. I’ve enjoyed the reading of them that I have completed, but I’ve set each of them aside in favor of some other pressing passion. I may come back to Bleak House — at least that’s what I’m telling myself right now — but, honestly, I might not. As for Middlemarch, the party’s over.

One thing I’ve clearly learned about myself as a reader is that I crave narrative. This hardly makes me unusual. Most readers crave narrative. It’s taken me a while to recognize this about myself, in part, I suspect, because of some vague belief that this craving is more middlebrow than I would like to think of myself as being. But I don’t see it that way anymore. This narrative craving, by the way, is not strictly for fiction. In fact, I prefer it to my nonfiction as well: history, journalism, biography, memoir. It can be highly literary in tone, deeply historical, whatever — but tell me a story that has a beginning, middle and end. Or tell me a bunch of different stories. It doesn’t matter, as long as there’s some form of narrative propulsion.

You and I share a passion for essays. But I will admit that I prefer essays that revolve around or meander through the unfolding of a story. I want the essayist to share observations, to raise questions, to make assertions within the context of some kind of story. It doesn’t have to be anything momentous. The writer could be going to the store and coming back home. But in the telling of this story, however mundane, there remains the possibility that something is going to happen, however trivial, that will keep my interest.

SCOTT: Right now, still gestating in a Google doc somewhere, I have a short essay about my tricky relationship to fiction. I began it when I had a realization: It’s amazing, in a completely shameful way, all the great books I’ve started and abandoned, so many classics among them. From Amis to Zola, you could compile a great syllabus from the books I’ve bailed on.

And some of that, I think, has very much to do with narrative. In the sense that, in a certain (and appallingly frequent) frame of mind, narrative is all I want. Propulsion. A whooshing transit from point A to point B and beyond. That is, the books of, say, Dan Brown and David Baldacci. What I seem not to want when I’m in those moods, what I resist at some kind of deep psychological level, is the process of identifying with a fictional person — the setting aside of my immediate consciousness in order to inhabit the one created by the writer. My mind truckles at that sense of … well, surrender is what it feels like. It probably means that I’m a raging narcissist or something.

Of course, the novels that people think of as airport fiction or cheap thrillers require zero identification; whether you climb inside the hero’s head or are continually aware of him/her as a one-dimensional linguistic effect, the rewards of reading these books are exactly the same. So it is that I can (a) realize that Dan Brown and David Baldacci are mediocre writers, and (b) read everything they’ve written. They trot me through a decent obstacle course of plot contrivances while — because I’m still reading, after all, an effortful act — being at least slightly better for me than TV.

GEOFF: I’m fully capable of reading what you’ve aptly called “airport fiction.” I’ve read deeply into Stephen King’s prodigious list, and I’ve read a ton of John D. MacDonald, Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, as well as, in my earlier years, some seriously questionable knockoff heroic fantasy. But I do think compelling narrative can be found among more literary-minded writers. My favorites in this area include Richard Russo, Richard Ford, Jim Harrison, Charles Portis, Nelson Algren, Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo. For me, it’s okay for the narrative to meander a bit, to take some off-ramps here and there to explore the countryside. But in the end it works best when there’s some of that “propulsion” you described, the idea that things are happening that lead to other developments and so on.

The death this week of Jim Harrison bummed me out. He was old and tired and sick, I know, so I’m sure he was past due, but over the past 10 years, especially, I ate up everything he wrote. I know I was one of the first people in the world to pick up his latest book and devour it in just a few days. This devotion is not easy to explain, except to say that Harrison possessed a literary voice that was as distinctive as that of any iconic actor or singer. It was — still is, really — comforting and exhilarating to experience that voice from time to time. It’s interesting that Harrison’s fiction was most beloved in France. I’m not sure what that says about the French, but I agree with their admiration for him. I wish Harrison had written more nonfiction. He wrote some, and it was good, but I really would have loved to see him produce more journalism and essays.

My wife is a big fan of Lee Child and Harlan Coben. I understand these guys to be at the high end of the airport fiction realm, probably around the same level as your Baldacci and Brown. I don’t see myself going there, so we’re different in that way. Modern-day high-concept mysteries and international thrillers aren’t what I’m after, I guess. But I’m sure I’m missing something. My wife is always citing “Reacher wisdom” as we go about our daily lives. I rarely am able to retort with practical wisdom offered by one of my favorite writers!

SCOTT: Correction: Lee Child is a much better writer — at the sentence and paragraph level — than Brown or Baldacci. He is, I’ll grant you, no Jim Harrison. I’m a huge fan of Harrison’s nonfiction, in particular his writing about food, which is so often really about appetite and the natural world and being human. Definite loss to us all, his death. I’m waaaayyyy behind you in reading of his fiction. I hope some day to find the time to catch up. Indeed, my real, honest-to-goodness hope in this life is that books are the one exception to the rule that you can’t take it with you. As Warren Zevon might sing, “I’ll read when I’m dead!”

Scott Dickensheets is deputy editor of Nevada Public Radio’s monthly magazine, Desert Companion. Geoff Schumacher is director of content for the Mob Museum.

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Some Stuff (Too Little) I Read This (Stinking Chamberpot of a) Year

Ugh, 2014 — who needed dystopian literature when you had Google news alerts? It seemed every day bagged and hashtagged more evidence of our decline, from Bundy Ranch and broiling Ferguson to the Ray Rice elevator videos and a smug Dick Cheney cheerleading for torture. (Surely the Germans have a word meaning “face that needs to be rectally fed.”) Mass shootings. Killer cops and, in briefly grieving Vegas and in conflicted New York, cop-killers. A vapor-locked Congress. A gasping planet. Journalism meltdown. Sharknado 2. An excess of Kardashians. In the same week in November, my cat died and the Republicans won, and with a very unpleasing sneezing and wheezing the calliope crashed to the ground. I mean, who needs North Korea when we’re our own worst malware? “How,” Charles Bowden asked, in the most urgent, penetrating sentence I read all year (from Some of the Dead Are Still Breathing), “can a person live a moral life in a culture of death?” He didn’t mean it as a rhetorical question, but there’s no answer I can think of. I’ll bet Dick Cheney knows.

How’s a guy supposed to read with all that racket? For me, at least, 2014 was often about keeping it all at bay, at least temporarily, which how I found myself happily buried alive in Thomas Pynchon’s delirious techno fable, Bleeding Edge. What a balm those whiz-bang sentences were! Marvels of tensile construction, their performative bounce a source of pure aesthetic joy. The narrative was a typically overstuffed Pynchon checklist: curious seeker, mysterious characters, murky conspiracies, blooming paranoias, hinted-at secret worlds, red herrings, silly names. Its hyperlinked plotlines were in keeping with the book’s setting and motif, Internet culture circa (wink, wink) early September 2001. Pynchon’s conspiracies and ambient anxieties managed to harmonize with, not exacerbate, my own bummer vibes; immersed in his book, I experienced the headlines as a distant clatter, like hail on the roof. I can’t swear it’s a great book, but it was great when I wanted it to be.

Bits of Chris Abani’s novel The Secret History of Las Vegas stick with me like splinters. I didn’t enjoy the book very much — I found the writing largely affectless in its attempt to achieve a literary lyricism (cue an eye roll at the un-quote-marked dialogue); the characters never quite rounded out for me; and its riffs on the meanings of Las Vegas aren’t particularly deep if you’re a lifer. But Abani threaded his narrative (which conjoined apartheid South Africa with Southern Nevada) through some disturbing themes — moral disfigurement; torture; trust and betrayal; the deadly weight of history; the deadly banality of bureaucracy — in ways that enlarged on Bowden’s question. I found myself thinking it about long after I was done reading. Does that make it a good book after all?

I also snacked on Lee Child’s latest Reacher novel, one of Steve Berry’s Cotton Malone numbers, and, I think, two David Baldaccis; as with counting carbs, I’m not particularly exact because it doesn’t particularly matter.

This was the year Dave Hickey took to Facebook, and for a while his posts were the best reading in my newsfeed, shortish but pointed (if irritatingly typo-ridden) thesis pieces about art and life that treated social media as a worthy sparring partner. But social media wasn’t up to it, and eventually it was mostly Dave goading his readers about their shortcomings (“This wall is a dog whistle for Asberger’s syndrome. Time out, take your meds”). Meanwhile, James Wolcott’s column in Vanity Fair continued its long arc of diminishing returns, at least in my eyes, the prose as sparkling as ever but stretched across emptier spaces, summaries and descriptions too often replacing the bracing thought. Then, for The New Republic, he uncorked a terrific sorta-takedown of Lena Dunham’s essay collection, Not That Kind of a Girl. Regaining his championship form, Wolcott matched his acerbic, jazz-hands style to a forensic critical assessment of a book everyone was talking about. I don’t have an opinion about Dunham myself, but what I enjoyed was seeing a sharp mind unafraid to make strong judgments in unapologetically vigorous prose. What made it better was that he backed it up with a nuanced, sympathetic take on Dunham herself and her career; turned out this was not a simple hatchet job. Maggie Nelson took the opposite approach in her review of Ben Lerner’s novel 10:04 in the Los Angeles Review of Books: She raved, adroitly and with piercing intelligence — a model of critical appreciation I’d give a lot to be able to pull off myself. Also at LARB, Joseph Giovannini’s architecture criticism set high standards of reasoning, clarity and passion, whether he was attacking an LA museum or celebrating Frank Gehry. Because I’m not above the lowbrow — see Baldacci, etc. — I read some celebrity profiles in 2014. Andrew Corsello’s zingy, interpretive take on Louis C.K. for GQ was my favorite, though it had its detractors, including Wolcott (in his Kindle single King Louie). Also worth a read: Adrian Nicole LeBlanc on comedian Doug Stanhope in Harper’s. Best unpublished essay about poop I read all year: Joe Langdon‘s. (Thanks for letting me read it, Joe.) But my hands-down favorite periodical reading all year came under James Parker’s byline in The Atlantic. He’s got the jumpin’ prose I love, applied to a smart generalist’s curiosities: “stuff”-based reality TV, William Burroughs, Jimi Hendrix. Always, Parker looks for the long tail, the rich context, the surprise connection. When he calls Naked Lunch “the truest successor to T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land,” you sit back and think, Well, there’s a pathway I didn’t imagine existed.

I wish he’d come out with a collection. 2014 was a great year for essay collections. No book this year took my head off more cleanly than The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison. It came out in April and Bowden died in August, so I suppose it’s possible he encountered the book before departure, and perhaps saw in it some stirrings of an answer to his question: that is, an understanding of the uses and abuses of empathy; an openness to the world; a precise and unflinching attention to the traffic between her inner life of memory and emotion and the exterior world she reports on and researches. To me, a necessary book.

Other essay collections that were nearly as vital, if for different reasons: Loitering, by Charles D’Ambrosio, More Curious, by Sean Wilsey, The Fame Lunches, by Daphne Merkin. The first two, especially, showed the flexibility of the essay form, its ability to dwell on the small details, the meandering thought — when D’Ambrosio shows up to cover a hostage situation in Seattle, what you learn from the piece has little to do with the crime and more to do with the modern existential condition. More conventional in form, Merkin’s book was just enjoyable to spend time with, even the confessional stuff I don’t normally tumble for.

I wanted to finish Lynn Tillman’s essay collection What Would Lynne Tillman Do?, and I still might. I wanted to finish Ben Lerner’s novel 10:04, and I still might; I wanted to finish James McBride’s novel The Good Lord Bird, and I still might; I wanted to finish Hilton Als’ essay collection White Girls, and I still might. I wanted to finish Jonathan Franzen’s The Kraus Project, but let’s be real — my appetite for fin de siecle Viennese literary politics is more limited than I assumed.

The small amount of poetry I read this year was still, for me, an unprecedented amount of poetry. Why the uptick? Wish I knew. At times my brain is like a truffle-sniffing pig, rooting out strange delights it’s only caught a scent of, and there I am, leashed behind and dragged helplessly along. Erin Bilieu’s collection Slant Six was a favorite. “The Rapture came / and went without incident, / but I put off folding my laundry, / just in case.” Necessary whimsy, that. So too parts of Michael Robbins’ The Second Sex: “The womb’s a fine and private place / or am I thinking of a doughnut?” But, Robbins being Robbins, shit can get suddenly real. “The United States of Fuck You Too / is what you’re about to receive. / You can shoot all the kids you like, / but you can never leave.”

That’s poetry, I guess, sending you right back to real life without due process, the way Tony Hoagland did for me in Donkey Gospel: “We gaze into the night / as if remembering the bright unbroken planet / we once came from / to which we will never / be permitted to return. / We are amazed how hurt we are.” He doesn’t mention Dick Cheney, but that’s okay — I auto-fill.


Ball’s in your court, 2015.

Scott Dickensheets is deputy editor of Desert Companion magazine, a frequent contributor to Vegas magazine and has edited four volumes of the annual Las Vegas Writes anthology series, most recently Lost and Found in Las Vegas (2014). He hopes one day to become an obscure essayist.

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My Best Reading Experiences of 2014

By Geoff Schumacher

My 2014 reading veered off in some unusual directions. In part, this was because of my new job at the Mob Museum, which requires me to dedicate a portion of my reading to organized crime history. I also made a decision to cut back substantially on modern fiction.

I’ve abandoned the practice of reading a newly released novel based on a positive review or two. More often than not, the book ends up being disappointing or at least not as worthy of my time as the hundreds of classic novels I could have read instead. I’ve made exceptions to this rule for a few authors whose work I already know I like.

Here are some of my best reading experiences of 2014:

Brown Dog: Novellas

Jim Harrison, 2014

Jim Harrison is probably my favorite living fiction writer. This book collects Harrison’s novellas about a character named Brown Dog, perhaps his greatest creation in a long and productive writing career. Brown Dog is difficult to explain. He’s a man without much formal education who does odd jobs, mostly in Upper Michigan, to make just enough money to survive. He enjoys good food, lusty women, fishing and being outdoors generally, and because of his fundamental naiveté and trusting nature, he gets himself into some strange, difficult and often hilarious situations. He is very slow to anger, and sometimes slow to comprehend what people around him are really up to. He’s not street smart, but that’s not to say he isn’t wise. He was raised by and around Native Americans in the U.P., but it’s never clear whether he is, in fact, an Indian himself. Maybe half. The novellas are a joy to read, and sprinkled with just enough Truth to make them nourishing as well as a lot of fun.

One Summer: America, 1927

Bill Bryson, 2013

This is a fine work of popular history, capturing a fascinating summer with just the right style. Charles Lindbergh, Babe Ruth, Al Capone, Sacco and Vanzetti, Gutzon Borglum (Mount Rushmore), Philo Farnsworth (TV inventor), Herbert Hoover, Al Jolson, Jack Dempsey and many lesser-known characters and stories are detailed as Bryson relives what has to be one of the most interesting years in American history.

Blood Aces: The Wild Ride of Benny Binion, the Texas Gangster Who Created Vegas Poker

Doug J. Swanson, 2014

This is the book of the year as far as historical work dealing with Las Vegas. Swanson, a Dallas journalist and novelist, has written the most definitive Binion biography to date, and it’s loaded with warts-and-all detail. Swanson does a masterful job of capturing Binion’s persona, both through in-depth research and a novelist’s eye for the telling detail.

The Green Felt Jungle

Ed Reid and Ovid Demaris, 1963

Over the years, I had dipped into this classic book many times, picking out facts and details for use in my own research. But I finally read it cover to cover, and I enjoyed the experience. Somewhat like the Bill Bryson book described above, this offers a snapshot of a gleaming era in Las Vegas, when the mob ran the casino industry and law enforcement was still trying to figure out how to go to battle. As with many of the muckraking books of that time, The Green Felt Jungle has a charmingly naive moral streak that not only abhors the mob’s skimming of the casinos but asks whether gambling should be legal in the first place.

Special Deluxe: A Memoir of Life and Cars

Neil Young, 2014

I’m a longtime fan of Neil Young’s music, but he’s a very good writer as well. His first memoir, Waging Heavy Peace, was a good read, though wildly disorganized and repetitive. It badly needed the aid of a good editor. Special Deluxe is more organized and better edited, but it retains Young’s shaggy dog personality as he tells stories inspired by various cars in his extensive collection of clunkers.


Kurt Vonnegut, 2014

The great novelist Kurt Vonnegut wrote some interesting letters. They tended to be fairly short and to the point, but they could be very effective and funny.

Forty-one False Starts: Essays on Artists and Writers

Janet Malcolm, 2013

Janet Malcolm is one of the all-time greats in the long-form journalism/essay world, and this collection certifies that standing. She is a tremendous observer and interviewer. If I could offer one word to describe her writing, it would be precise.

Loitering: New & Collected Essays

Charles D’Ambrosio, 2014

This was the second-hottest essay collection of the year behind Leslie Jamison’s wonderful The Empathy Exams. D’Ambrosio is a fine writer and observer of modern life. I most highly recommend his introduction and his piece on the Mary Kay Letourneau sexual assault case, which speaks volumes about the anti-intellectual, reactionary nature of political and social commentary that passes for expert analysis on TV.

My Struggle, Book 1

Karl Ove Knausgaard

English translation, 2012

I can’t explain why I read this book. After all, why should I care about the inner thoughts and mundane life of a Norwegian writer? But this autobiographical novel (more nonfiction than fiction, if there’s any of the latter at all) is nothing less than mesmerizing. Knausgaard is a fine writer, and a very insightful student and critic of himself and people close to him. I’ve already purchased Book 2, with the intention of reading all six books once they are all translated and published.

Bleak House

Charles Dickens, 1853

I’ve read 366 of the 881 pages of this classic Dickens novel. I’m enjoying it, but over the course of the year I got distracted by other books and put it down several times. I likely will finish it in 2015, and without complaint. I can’t really add anything to what so many others have said about Dickens, but let’s just say that his work holds up while so many of his contemporaries do not.

This Living Hand and Other Essays

Edmund Morris, 2012

Edmund Morris is highly regarded for his three-volume biography of Theodore Roosevelt, and not so highly regarded for his biography of Ronald Reagan, which includes re-imagined scenes and conversations. I don’t recommend everything in this eclectic collection of articles, lectures and essays, but there are some very eloquent and effective pieces, including a recounting of Morris’ passionate campaign to save a tree in Washington, D.C. Morris also writes well about classical music.

“The Secret File on Virginia Hill,” True Crime magazine article

Ray Brennan, 1951

Reading old magazines is often entertaining and informative, and this is a great example. Ray Brennan was, according to his bio in the magazine, a “Chicago newspaper crime specialist who spent a full year with the Kefauver Crime Committee.”

And, delightfully, Brennan was a good writer. When you think about True Crime magazine, you probably expect sloppy writing and wild, unsubstantiated stories. That’s not the case with this piece.

Virginia Hill, you’ll recall, was Bugsy Siegel’s girlfriend before he was killed in 1947. Over the years, she was the girlfriend of some other mob guys as well. Brennan’s descriptions of her are worth quoting:

  • “Correct usage of grammar always was a mystery to her, although she was smart enough in arithmetic. She learned quickly to count money accurately and figure her percentages in later life. She had a gift for accumulating cash, too, although she couldn’t hold on to it.”
  • “New York was Virginia’s omelet, and she enjoyed every morsel of it. There were bigger chumps in Gotham than Chicago, she discovered, and more of them. The dress shops offered better selections and the pawn shops gave better prices for jewelry that came to her as gifts but wasn’t select enough for her collection.”

The scene Brennan describes at Siegel’s Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas is memorable:

“Bugsy wasn’t happy. Virginia had joined him at the Flamingo and she was raising hob, day and night. She was allergic to cactus and suffered from hay fever. Siegel fretted constantly about money, and she couldn’t see the stuff was that important. One night in the casino she shouted to him so loudly that the customers heard: ‘Hey, Ben, let’s get the hell out of this dump and go to L.A.’ Another evening, she had an argument with a lady guest in the lobby and knocked her cold with a right to the jaw. Siegel told her she’d have to stop drinking, and she scratched his face.”

Introduction, Best American Essays 2014

John Jeremiah Sullivan, 2014

Some people skip introductions, but I’m a fan of them. They are typically where a writer comments on his or someone else’s writing, and for me that’s good reading. There’s a fine introduction in this year’s Best American Essays. Sullivan takes an investigative, scholarly approach to the history of the essay, and in the process advances the narrow but persistent dialogue about what exactly an essay is and what it is trying to accomplish. Oh, and there are some really great essays in the book, too.

Introduction, American Sketches

Walter Isaacson, 2009

Here’s a great example of an introduction in which the writer surveys his career and makes an interesting case for this collection of his writing. Isaacson was the managing editor of Time magazine and CEO of CNN, but he’s best known for his more recent work as a biographer of Benjamin Franklin, Albert Einstein and Steve Jobs. He has a lot of great anecdotes to share and lessons learned to reveal.

More Curious

Sean Wilsey, 2014

Wilsey’s essay collection is full of intriguing narratives, with perhaps the best stuff about Marfa, Texas, a remote small town turned artist colony where Wilsey now lives some of the time. Perhaps not surprisingly, in his excellent introduction, Wilsey talks about his favorite introductions by other writers (Thomas Pynchon and Joseph Mitchell).

Honorable mentions: The Third Coast: When Chicago Built the American Dream, Thomas Dyja; The Free, Willy Vlautin; The Empathy Exams, Leslie Jamison; Doctor Sleep, Stephen King; Do Not Sell At Any Price: The Wild, Obsessive Hunt for the World’s Rarest 78 RPM Records, Amanda Petrusich: A Sense of Direction: Pilgrimage for the Restless and the Hopeful, Gideon Lewis-Kraus; Let Me Be Frank with You, Richard Ford; Kill the Messenger: How the CIA’s Crack-Cocaine Controversy Destroyed Journalist Gary Webb, Nick Schou.

Geoff Schumacher is the director of content for the Mob Museum in Las Vegas. He is the author of Sun, Sin & Suburbia: The History of Modern Las Vegas and Howard Hughes: Power, Paranoia & Palace Intrigue, and editor of Nevada: 150 Years in the Silver State.

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Saturday Morning Bookshelfie


A random selection of volumes from my shelf. Some I’ve read, some I eventually will — here’s looking at you, Hazlitt — and others I probably never will.


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