News 07.06.24: Five Essential Articles from Around the Web

News 07.06.24: Five Essential Articles from Around the Web

If you’ve been enjoying these curated article summaries that dive into cultural, creative, and technological currents, you may find the discussions and analyses on our Substack page worthwhile as well. There, I explore themes and ideas that often intersect with the subjects covered in the articles I come across during my curation process.

While this curation simply aims to surface compelling pieces, our Substack writings delve deeper into topics that have piqued our curiosity over time. From examining the manifestation of language shaping our reality to unpacking philosophical undercurrents in society, our Substack serves as an outlet to unpack our perspectives on the notable trends and undercurrents reflected in these curated readings.

So if any of the articles here have stoked your intellectual interests, I invite you to carry that engagement over to our Substack, where we discuss related matters in more depth. Consider it an extension of the curation – a space to further engage with the fascinating ideas these pieces have surfaced.


The rabbis of the Talmud taught in parables, fanciful tales meant to illustrate moral principles. To what may a parable be compared? one of them once asked, that being the form of most rabbinical questions. To a cheap candle used by a king to find a gold coin. With just one modest anecdote, you may fathom the Torah!

Jesus taught in parables too—which is not surprising, given that he was also a rabbi of sorts. Why do you speak to the people in parables? his disciples ask him in Matthew 13:10–17, after he has just preached one to large crowds. Because they don’t understand them, he responds, offering one of the most mystifying explanations in the Gospels: Seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear. But you disciples, Jesus says, addressing his loyal followers, rank among the initiated and know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, so you do understand my parables, and can learn from them: To he who has, more will be given, but from he who has not, more will be taken.

Franz Kafka wasn’t a rabbi, exactly, but he is the high priest of 20th-century literature, and he also wrote in parables. In a brief one called “On Parables,” he asks, in effect, what they’re good for. Why do sages feel obliged to illustrate their principles with tales, requiring their listeners to, as he puts it, “go over” to another world? Kafka answers: The sages don’t mean that we should go to “some actual place,” but rather to “some fabulous yonder, something unknown to us, something too that he cannot designate more precisely, and therefore cannot help us here in the least.” In short, even the sage can’t articulate the meaning of his own parables, and so they’re useless to us. “All these parables really set out to say merely that the incomprehensible is incomprehensible.”

The rabbis say that parables teach Torah. Jesus says that only the seeker for truth can understand parables. Kafka says no one can. It’s a strange claim for a storyteller to make. To what may Kafka’s pessimism be compared? To his parable “An Imperial Message.” A dying emperor entrusts a messenger with a message meant for you and you alone. The man is strong; he clears a path easily through the gathered throng. But the crowds and the courtyards multiply: “He is still pressing through the chambers of the innermost palace; never will he prevail; and were he to succeed at this, nothing would have been gained: he would have to fight his way down the steps; and were he to succeed at this, nothing would be gained.” And so it goes for thousands of years. And you? You “sit at your window and dream” of the message that never comes.

Read the rest of this article at: The Atlantic

Imagine that you are feeling down and inadequate. Someone who loves you wants to help by saying something really affirming. How about: “You’re perfect just the way you are”? That sounds nice!

In fact, this is perhaps the most insidious thing that people tell us—or that we tell ourselves—when we feel sad or insecure. It provokes enormous cognitive dissonance: “This is perfect?” you think (after the brief glow of the compliment wears off). And that suggests one of two logical conclusions: Either you face a bleak status quo with no hope of self-improvement, or the outside world must be to blame for your unhappiness. The first conclusion leads to utter darkness; the second to angry rebellion against a malevolent universe.

The truth is that you are not perfect, and neither is anyone else. And this is incredibly good news: If you can accept this reality, you will have hope of improving yourself and your life. Then you will be happier.

We humans have a natural tendency to exaggerate our positive qualities, and compare ourselves favorably with others. This is called “self-enhancement bias,” and it gives rise to all sorts of distortions in perception. Famously, back in the 1980s, researchers showed that up to 80 percent of motorists considered themselves to have above-average driving skills. If you’re a regular driver, you have to know that this cannot be true—even if you persist in believing it about yourself.

People also tend to rate themselves more highly on positive moral traits: They are likely, for example, to see themselves as hard-working, honest, and warm. And they tend to rate other people higher on negative traits such as being lazy, cold, and insincere. This is especially true for young and middle-aged adults, who rank themselves as better-than-average on multiple measures.

One reason for this tendency is that it acts as protection against the mental pain that comes from negative comparisons with others. Neuroscientists writing in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2013 used fMRI and PET scans to show that feeling superior to others stimulates dopamine release, which in turn suppresses activity in parts of the brain such as the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex, a region associated with mental anguish.

Not surprisingly, people who don’t exercise self-enhancement appear to suffer more than those who do. Although the direction of causality is not clear, some scholars have argued that people who assess themselves accurately tend to be those with mood disorders such as depression, a phenomenon known as “depressive realism.”

Read the rest of this article at: The Atlantic

News 07.06.24: Five Essential Articles from Around the Web

In the summer of 1930, the anthropologist Margaret Mead and her second husband and fellow anthropologist, Reo Fortune, made their way to the Omaha Reservation in northeastern Nebraska. At age 28, Mead had already gained renown for her ethnographic study Coming of Age in Samoa. In Samoa, she had found a society whose looser sexual mores she came to view as a challenge to rigid Western norms. But in Nebraska she encountered a people that had already assimilated into Western civilization. In the decades after their catastrophic subjugation and confinement to the reservation, she discovered, many Omaha had embraced a new syncretic religion, the Native American Church, fusing elements of Christianity with native traditions, notably the ritual use of the hallucinogenic peyote cactus. Mead believed that by enabling the transcendence of familiar categories, the Omaha use of peyote was part of their attempt to forge a new culture in the wake of losing their own.

Read the rest of this article at: The  New Atlantis

The first time I saw a dying patient suffer through extreme pain came shortly after I joined a hospice volunteer program in Manhattan. I was assigned to visit Marshall, a former welder, who occupied a double room in an all-HIV facility on Rivington Street on the Lower East Side. Our first visit was quiet. Marshall seemed too demoralized by his condition to entertain a guest, so we watched TV. But when I arrived for our second visit, I found him literally doubled over. He clutched his knees and slightly rocked his body. Marshall’s roommate, Timothy, told me that he had been reprimanded by staff for getting Marshall some Advil when he asked for it. But the medication Marshall was being given for pain by medical staff didn’t last long enough. I hurried down the hall to summon the nurse, who seemed hesitant to respond. She had been instructed to administer pain medication every four hours. Within two hours of dosage, Marshall was experiencing what’s called “breakthrough pain,” and then he was left to withstand that pain for another two hours. What could she do? I protested loudly. Finally, a doctor and a primary nurse came to Marshall’s bedside. One of them suggested giving Marshall a drug they had not yet tried, one with demonstrated efficacy: methadone. The nurse shifted from one foot to the other. “It’s highly addictive,” she said, as if the conversation were over. What possible difference could that make? “He’s dying,” I told them.

This was 2014. Methadone was considered a “junkie drug,” what addicts took to get off heroin—and by this time, heroin use had been rising rapidly. In fact, the United States was in a “third wave” of opioid abuse, which started with widely prescribed painkillers in the late 1990s, then a rise in heroin deaths beginning around 2010, followed by a rise in deaths from illicit opioids such as fentanyl beginning around 2013. By 2014, there were twenty-eight thousand annual drug-overdose deaths in the United States. The widespread awareness of what is often called an “opioid epidemic” explains the nurse’s warning that day about the addictive risks of methadone. There were several obstacles to treating Marshall’s pain, but the greatest was the stigma of opioids.

The stigma is not hard to understand: magazine features, books, and movies for two decades now have chronicled America’s drug problems, including the rapacious role of drug manufacturers like Purdue Pharma, which made OxyContin a household name and enriched the Sackler family in the process. The publicity of their misdeeds led lawmakers on a campaign against opioid prescribing. Yet the crackdown had an unintended consequence, one little examined today: it has increased the suffering of patients who experience chronic pain, as medications that were once heavily promoted have since been restricted. And it has added to the needless agony of those like Marshall at the end of life. I told the story of Marshall and others like him in my 2016 book, The Good Death. Since that time, the double-sided problem has only seemed to worsen. Even morphine, which has long been used to ease the final days and hours of patients in hospice care, is only available to the fortunate ones, as supply chain problems have combined with fears of overuse, leading to vast inequities as to who dies in terrible pain.

Read the rest of this article at: The Baffler

Why Are Debut Novels Failing to Launch

On the Road was not Jack Kerouac’s first novel, but you’d be forgiven for thinking as much.

Though 1957’s On the Road is widely considered to be Kerouac’s “debut,” the author’s first novel, The Town and the City, was in fact published in 1950. By all measures, it flopped. Between that book and the launch of On the Road, Kerouac started working with the literary agent Sterling Lord, who believed he could be the voice of his generation and laid the groundwork for his public reception as such. What, exactly, did Sterling Lord do to prime Kerouac’s audience? From 1953 to 1957, he leveraged his own professional connections to place excerpts of On the Road in magazines like The Paris Review and New World Writing, building hype for the young novelist’s next bookThis is common practice today, but in the fifties, it was a novel solution to the name-recognition problem faced by unknown writers.

After a few years of seeing Kerouac’s byline in print, the thinking went, readers would pay attention when they recognized his name on the cover of On the Road. It was one of the first literary “debuts” of its kind, explains Temple University professor Laura McGrath, author of the forthcoming book Middlemen: Literary Agents and the Making of Contemporary American Literature. McGrath argues that Sterling Lord created the blueprint for the literary “debut” phenomenon we still see today.

But unlike in the late fifties, when there were only a handful of venues for reaching the public—national magazines with hundreds of thousands of subscribers, a few television channels—today’s overstuffed, under-resourced media landscape means that book coverage is more fractured and reaches fewer readers. These days, an unknown author’s chances of success hinge on cobbling together an audience through aggregate. Last fall, while reporting Esquire’s “Future of Books” predictions, I asked industry insiders about trends they’d noticed in recent years. Almost everyone mentioned that debut fiction has become harder to launch. For writers, the stakes are do or die: A debut sets the bar for each of their subsequent books, so their debut advance and sales performance can follow them for the rest of their career. For editors, if a writer’s first book doesn’t perform, it’s hard to make a financial case for acquiring that writer’s second book. And for you, a reader interested in great fiction, the fallout from this challenging climate can limit your access to exciting new voices in fiction. Unless you diligently shop at independent bookstores where booksellers highlight different types of books, you might only ever encounter the big, splashy debuts that publishers, book clubs, social-media algorithms, and big-box retailers have determined you should see.

In December 2021, The New York Times called best-selling debut novels “the bald eagles of the book world.” Of the fifteen that appeared on the newspaper’s hardcover-fiction list that year, writer Elisabeth Egan wrote, “only five were by non-celebrity authors who had not been anointed by Oprah Winfrey, Reese Witherspoon, Jenna Bush, or the Good Morning America Book Club.” Today, it’s not enough to land a spot in one of these coveted book clubs. According to an editor at a venerable publishing imprint, debut novelists need three key publicity achievements to “break out”: one, a major book club; two, a boost from Barnes & Noble, Amazon, Indie Next, and/or Book of the Month; and three, a major profile.


Read the rest of this article at: Esquire