Winter Round-up: Books, TV, & Movies
This season's theme: leaning into more complicated narratives.
It’s officially spring now: time to reflect on what I’ve read (and watched) over winter. Overall, in the past few months I’ve found myself with little inclination to read works of psychology, or even much non-fiction generally.
Maybe that’s because I’m in the final stages of finishing my PhD, and so I find myself restlessly trying to cover non-psychological territory. But I don’t think that’s it. The real reason—or the story that I’ve come up with at any rate—has to do with how I’m growing as a person. It has to do with the fundamental complicatedness of life. I’m trying to embrace it. Not escape it.
The driving force in psychological research is simplification. The research takes a seemingly complicated dynamic in human behavior and subjugate it into some conceptually understandable (usually dichotomous) box. How does reasoning and decision-making work? Well, it’s complicated. But you can start by dividing things into System 1 and System 2. The first one is fast, relies on heuristics, and prone to bias. The second one is slow, deliberate, and based in logical processing. That’s an example. It’s the essence of Daniel Kahneman’s famous Thinking, Fast and Slow.
And this kind of dichotomizing and conceptual simplification is something I’m drawn to. I find it compelling. It’s standard-operating-procedure for anyone interested in writing about psychology, and I hope to do a lot of it in my own work as a writer. But I also feel that in coming up on ten years of studying psychology and cognitive science, I’m starting to wonder about other approaches to studying the human mind.
What if, instead of taking the complicated aspects of behavior and trying to simplify them, we leaned into the complicatedness of human life in its full convoluted glory? What would that look like? Well, it would look like a novel.
And up until recently—let’s say a couple years ago—I didn’t know what to do with that. As I wrote in my essay on the Hungarian masterpiece Journey by Moonlight, I always felt like I was waiting for someone to come along and explain what was happening to me while reading the book. Then I became frustrated when no conceptually simplified dichotomy was forthcoming.
Having exhausted the simplifying approach via psychology (or at the very least, gone a long way with where that will take me) I find myself ready to encounter some new territory, some ground that requires new and different tools for me to grow something in it. So like I said. I’m working on trying to lean into the complexity of life, rather than subjugate it. It’s okay if I don’t understand everything. The set of things I can engage with if I don’t expect to “understand” them is much larger than what I could otherwise deal with. That seems to me like a big benefit. I also feel there are aspects of life—relationships with partners and family especially come to mind—that really lend themselves to investigating through literary rather than scientific means.
So here I am. I’ve read a few novels in the opening months of this year. I’ve also watched quite a bit of TV. But that has less to do with growing as a person. It’s more that English winters are the perfect inspiration for shrugging off responsibilities and settling in on the couch.
If you ask me, that sounds way better than working on my dissertation.
“End of the End of the World” by Jonathan Franzen.
I’ve been going through a bit of a Franzen-phase. I’d never read him before. But I counted his novel Freedom as my second favorite book I read in 2021. This is his most recent collection of essays. It was… mostly about birds? Like, it’s a book about climate change, but it turns out that the only reason J Franz really cares about climate change is because it’s going to kill off a bunch of bird species. The whole consequences-for-humans aspect of the whole thing seems to be an auxiliary consideration. Anyway. I was just happy to read something that gives me a bit more direct insight into the mind of someone whose novel I loved. This just happened to be the one that popped up first at the used book store, but I’m looking forward to reading his other collections of non-fiction.
“The Three Body Problem” by Cixin Liu
One of the questions I always ask my guests on Cognitive Revolution is which three books have most influenced them. The three most common answers are: “Gödel, Escher, Bach” by Douglas Hofstadter; “Man’s Search for Meaning” by Viktor Frankl; and this one. It’s a work of science fiction by a Chinese author. I don’t read much science fiction. It’s just not really my thing. But I figured in this case I’d like to give it a go. And while I enjoyed reading this one, I wouldn’t say I’m in a rush to finish the trilogy. Part of me felt like the reason a bunch of scientists recommended this book is that all of the main characters are scientists and all of the key plot points are scientific. So scientists are just happy to see themselves represented in what is undoubtedly a great, creative, and ambitious work of literature.
“Think Again” by Adam Grant
I got into this in early February, but I haven’t finished yet. Adam Grant is Exhibit A of the simplifying process of psychology I described in the intro. And part of me means that in a really good way; he’s the state-of-the-art in making complicated ideas as comprehensive as possible while still retaining their incisive edge. But I also can’t escape the feeling of kitsch—that when he’s explaining an idea he’s really Doing A Thing. Like, he understands how explaining works and so now he’s applying the tried-and-tested formula. It’s a great formula. But it’s just that—a formula. And so I find myself less drawn to that kind of work than I maybe would have five years ago.
Still, it’s a thesis that I find myself in deep sympathy with: that we need always to be reevaluating our closely held assumptions, habits, and beliefs. So it’s still a worthwhile read, and an archetypal example of why Adam Grant is at the top of the bringing-psych-research-to-a-broader-audience game.
“Spring” by David Szalay
This rounds out a trio of books I’ve read over the past year by this British-Hungarian author. By far the best was his “All that Man Is,” which I ranked fourth in my books from last year. This early offering is definitely a less refined work than that one. It’s a novel of manners, with the social milieu under consideration essentially being the millennial dating-scene of London. It’s got great London vibes and great romantically frustrated millennial vibes. I’d recommended it for anyone for whom that sounds appealing.
“Outline” by Rachel Cusk
This will definitely make my year-end book list. I had never heard of Rachel Cusk before. But I can see why she’s so well-regarded. I’m looking forward to getting into the rest of her works—this one is actually the first installment in a trilogy, so those other two books are high on my list.
I was actually recommended this book by Sam Gershman. In citing his most influential books, he mentioned “Three Body Problem,” which I’d definitely gotten from a number of guests already. But he also mentioned Rachel Cusk. At first, I forgot about it in the moment, then when I revisited the episode I became intrigued. I’m super glad I found her.
Essentially, this novel takes place across ten different conversations. The narrator is a writer who travels from London to Greece to give a writing seminar. So there’s not really any conventional plot, at least in terms of there being rising action and a driving narrative thread throughout the story. Instead, what you get are encounters with people from different walks of life—a London billionaire, a Greek taxi driver, an aspiring writer—each of whom gives the narrator an insight into their worldview. The conceit of the book is that each of one of these people is hyper-articulate about their own views and perspectives. It’s sort of like Aaron Sorkin-style dialogue, where any one of the characters has the verbal skills to destroy an interlocutor in a formal debate. These are the “outlines” of people’s lives that we get a glimpse into. And, as ever, by understanding more about how others see the world, we’re getting closer to understanding the hidden and unexpected nuances within our own perspective.
“Heart of Darkness” by Joseph Conrad
The classic. Extended essay forthcoming…
“It is written that I should be loyal to the nightmare of my choice.”
“A Gentleman in Moscow” by Amor Towles
I read this book hoping that the theme of “being trapped at home” will never again be as salient for me as it has been over the past two years. So I went in expecting a book that was moody and dark (i.e., Russian) and about a dude who was essentially isolated by himself in a room for a long period of time. Turns out, that’s not at all what the book is about. It is, above all, about fun. I think of the book less like a novel that’s driven by an overarching plot, but more like a TV show—where each episode features a distinct, encapsulated story line. There are a few threads running throughout. But it’s more that each chapter is a Seinfeldian stand-alone vignette, where something fairly inane but nevertheless entertaining and mildly hilarious transpires. Even so, I still hope the “trapped at home” theme never quite resonates in the way it has over the past two years…
“Normal People” by Sally Rooney
This book is a phenomenon. And whenever something sells a gazillion copies I’m always interested to see what resonated so deeply with people. I read Matt Haig’s “Midnight Library” last year, which falls into the same category (it wasn’t for me). I liked Sally Rooney a lot more. I’d already watched the BBC TV show based on the book, and it turns out that the series is a really high-fidelity adaptation. I’d even say that Paul Mescal in the series is way more Connelly than Connell is in the book.
At any rate, the book didn’t blow my mind or anything. But it resonates with a larger theme I’ve been thinking about recently, which is: What constitutes a “normal” relationship? As in, what is the baseline expectation about how a relationship (between two romantic partners) should be functioning? The answer is somewhere between “totally perfect all the time” and “totally catastrophic always”. But I think even trying to say which end of the spectrum a normal relationship lands on according to business as usual is even really tough to say!
This is one of the big themes of “complicatedness” that I’ve been leaning into recently. Relationships are complicated. Sally Rooney definitely thinks so. Marianne and Connell’s relationship is definitely on the “totally catastrophic always” side of the spectrum—punctuated with brief spells of bliss—and that says a lot if they’re the “normal people” in the title. But maybe “normal” is instead aspirational, and they just want to be normal like everyone else and not so fucked up. Maybe we all wanted to be less fucked up and more normal like everyone else.
Another novelist who is fascinated by this question is Jonathan Franzen. Have I mentioned him before?
“The Corrections” by Jonathan Franzen
The approximately 14,000 pages between Franzen’s “Freedom” and “The Corrections” have totally changed the way I think about life. That’s not an exaggeration. They’ve done more to reorient my thinking than anything else I’ve engaged with in recent memory.
The basic theme shared between the books is about what to do with a fucked-up family. Both books deal with five characters. And in each chapter, we see things from the perspective of one of the characters (it’s essentially a third-person narrator who at any one time has privileged vantage into a single character’s view). The way I describe reading one of his novels is that it is like looking into one of those 10x mirrors that you find in hotel bathrooms. You see everything in excruciating detail. Much closer up than you really want to. And because there are these rotating perspectives and you’re seeing people’s individual take on shared events, as well as the nuances of their dyadic relationship with every other individual, the overall effect is this holistic psychological portrait of this family dynamic.
The reason that this is useful is that because, speaking personally, I have only ever seen one family close up in anything like that kind of resolution. That is my own. And because I don’t have anything to compare them to, I don’t know what’s fucked up in a way that’s fucked up for everyone and therefore is inevitable, or what’s fucked up in a way that’s unique to my family and therefore is not inevitable. Franzen’s massive novels make it feel like I’ve finally gotten close enough to another family unit to scrutinize what’s happening.
And what’s my conclusion? Well, it’s worth providing the caveat that these books are super long for a reason—and any summary of their “insights” necessarily glosses over all that critical detail. If that detail wasn’t necessary, then J Franz could’ve just tweeted the insight then moved on with life. But at any rate, my summary is this: in these stories, there is nothing any of the characters can do at any point to unfuck their own situation. There is no decision they can make that will lead them to a not fucked up relationship. Their choices are only ever between Fucked-Up-A and Fucked-Up-B. It’s not really a happy notion (in the essay collection mentioned above, Franzen self-identifies as a “pessimistic realist”). But in accepting—or at least appreciating—that the choice is between two suboptimal paths, it frees you from the tyranny of the optimal.
So if you really want to get into the theme of romantically frustrated millennials, here’s the real issue! Because we’re given so much power to “optimize” our own lives (e.g., through sourcing potential mates via Tinder), we’re constantly put under pressure to end up on a path that feels optimal. If it feels like we’re not getting the best case scenario, then we say fuck that path and look for another. So it matters a lot what we think the “best” option is. If it’s “totally perfect all the time” then we’re going to inadvertently cause ourself to end up in the “totally fucked up always” camp by seeking something that doesn’t exist and asking of our loved ones something they cannot give.
Anyway. I really enjoyed these Franzen novels. I’m going to read his “Twenty-Seventh City” next, though I’m in no particular hurry. Also, “Crossroads” when it comes out in paperback.
A three-season show starring Jeff Daniels written by Aaron Sorkin, mentioned above, who wrote The West Wing. I’ve heard some people say it’s better than West Wing, which is probably incorrect because even if it’s pound-for-pound as good The West Wing maintained that excellence for 10+ seasons. Whereas The West Wing is a show about the political process in the White House (particularly its interaction with the press room), the Newsroom looks at a foil of that process—the production and dissemination of network cable news critiquing the political process from an external perspective. In a way, the show was prescient in the themes it deals with: Who decides on the facts? Who chooses what gets air time? How do you balance differing perspectives on the same underlying issue? These are the questions of our age. And though we’re used to dealing with them in the context of Trump & Twitter et al, Newsroom looks at a time that goes up until moments before all that, the cusp of the social media era.
My only note here is be careful. The show is so watchable. I couldn’t stop once I started. I was powerless to watch all three seasons.
But I have no self control. Maybe you do.
Never watched. Now I have. It was fun!
After Life, Season 3 (Netflix)
I’d describe Season 1 and 2 of After Life as a perfect show, at least for what it was trying to be. Season 3 is definitely solid, but probably it’s best that the show wraps up here. Part of the magic of this show is that its scope is so small. One English dude. Sad little English town. Lost his wife to cancer. Wants to kill himself. Doesn’t, just to see what happens. His strategy for dealing with the darkness: laughter. And because the scope so well-constrained, I think Gervais really nails it.
The show also accords with this theory I have about comedy. Essentially, the reason why comedy is hard as a comedian is that you’re telling people that you’re about to be funny. They expect to laugh, because laughter is the promise. Therefore, you have to overcome this expectation to earn their laughter. Laughter in this situation is costly.
But in daily life, laughter is cheap! We laugh all the time, often at pretty much nothing. The difference is in expectation. So a comedian or a comedy show has to be really, really good in order to come off as funny. But shows or performances which are supposed to be for some other non-comedic purpose, any comedy that gets incorporated is much more likely to land. The expectations are lower.
This theory suggests that the best (or at least the easiest) way to be funny is to come to people on non-comedic grounds. Gervais does this in After Life by starting from the insanely, heart-wrenchingly tragic premise of losing his wife, the only person he really loved and who gave his life meaning. Now his life is devoid of love and meaning and happiness, and he and everyone around him knows it. That’s the least funny premise of all time. Which just makes the show all that funnier, once he begins to uncover genuinely hilarious material.
Ozark, Season 4 (Netflix)
The thing I love about Ozark is that it was most popular circa Spring 2020, during the beginning of the pandemic. It was sufficiently dark and gruesome to resonate with our collective sensibilities at the time. It’s like Tiger King in that way. It was a lens onto the society’s consciousness. But it’s not like Tiger King in that under no circumstances should they have made a second season. This season of Ozark is still great.
Reacher (Amazon Prime)
I love Tom Cruise movies. But I’d argue that his three worst movies of all time were: Jack Reacher 1, Jack Reacher 2, and Knight & Day. Maybe honorary mention to the third M:I. He was a terrible Jack Reacher! Why? It’s simple. Tom Cruise is like four-foot-eight. And Jack Reacher is supposed to be a six-foot-eleven brick shithouse. Also, Tom Cruise is a talker. Jacker Reacher is not a talker!! This new guy, Alan Ritchson, is the two things Tom Cruise could never be: large and terse.
So the show is worth watching just because this guy is so fascinatingly shaped. But more than that, the show rectified the sins of Tom Cruise. Is it the best of all possible action shows? No, it is not. But it very well may be the best of all possible adaptions of Lee Child’s Jack Reacher. And that’s a lot more than Tom Cruise can say.
Highly recommend. This isn’t a normal documentary. Basically, there was this dude who quit his job to start following Kanye around with a camera before he was famous. The guy was basically like “I know this Kanye guy is going places” and so became a part of his entourage and so where was there for all these crazy moments early in Kanye’s career. And so it’s a rare opportunity to see the process of one of the most creative artists of our generation (it’s an accurate label, whatever else you want to say about the guy) before he was acknowledged as such.
Inventing Anna (Netflix)
I put off watching this for a long time. I thought it looked super annoying. I was totally wrong! It was astonishingly good. Like, so good that you find yourself wondering throughout how someone created something that’s this compelling. Definitely watch it if you’re looking for a great binge.
I won’t say anything about this other than it was really good. I went into it with no expectations other than that (thanks to my mate Tristan for the recommendation) and was heavily rewarded. Enjoy!
FF Coppola’s cinematic adaption of Heart of Darkness set in war-torn Vietnam. Extended essay coming soon.
“Everyone gets everything he wants. I wanted a mission, and for my sins, they gave me one.”
This film is considered the “directorial masterpiece” of Clint Eastwood. At least that’s what Amazon Prime’s blurb tells me. But I think it’s accurate! If you know me, you know that I love Westerns (particularly Western novels; I’ll watch / read anything with a cowboy). And this is one of the highest quality ones I’ve come across. The narrative structure is pristine. The central motif of the movie of is how hard it is to actually pull the trigger of a gun to kill someone. All of which builds to a point where that is the crucial consideration at stake. This is another instance where no character’s choice is between the outcomes of “good” and “bad”. Every possible outcome is a bad one, even when they’re all just trying to do the right thing. But by the end, they only thing they achieved are different levels of bad.
Taylor Tomlinson’s “Look at You” special
I’d peg her as my choice for the comedic voice of my specific stratum of millennial-hood (she was born in 1993, which is an important year for humanity because it was the one I was born in). Her new special is out. If you want to talk about themes of “Fucked Up A” versus “Fucked Up B” she’s got you covered—and with a higher density of laughs than other content mentioned here.