"They Made This Just for Me"
gratitude as a basis for taste
There’s no way to write this particular newsletter without more or less destroying the idea behind it. For a few years now I’ve been interested in the compulsion around sharing. You listen to a song, read a book, watch a show, see a sunset—most of us want to share it. I don’t mean simply on social media (but of course, yes, on social media). We enjoy a piece of the world at some level of intensity, and an instinct to place it in the hands of another emerges.
This instinct generally comes from one of two places,1 I think, and is probably the child of both more often than not:
Sharing is a form of relating. I want to be known, and I also want to invite others into sharing so that I can know them better.
Sharing is a form of validation. I want to be approved, or at least I want to test what I love against the approval of others.
At some point, I began reacting against the impulse to share, especially when I felt the tensions of the second situation. Not just that I shared less, but I began noticing when the impulse to spread the word about a new book or a really good article arose, and I wanted to know if I could dampen that. Frankly, I wanted to care less about the opinions of others, a pressure I had internalized more than I wanted to admit.
While I’m not here to chatter about social media, I do think my resistance began with Twitter. Friends and family and probably some vague backlog of op-eds in my mind like to deride Twitter and Facebook and so forth for encouraging attention deficits (which is probably true!), but in recent years I’ve come to agree with Alan Jacobs: “The particular kind of madness generated [on social media] is a mania for unanimity” (emphasis mine).
This pull to unanimity, a kind of social gravity-well, obviously happens along a cultural/entertainment axis as well. Have you seen Game of Thrones? Didn’t you hate the last season? You’re telling me you have a newsletter on Substack and you’ve never watched Succession? Or whatever. There are endless ways to caricature this group-love that I’m not actually that interested in. People want to like the same things as other people they respect. Fine!
But what I came to cherish during the pandemic more than ever were little flecks of entertainment and performance and writing that I never wanted to share, not at large, at least, and barely with anyone in my family.2 They felt more substantive the longer I indulged this privacy. Probably I was just safeguarding myself from the uninterest or even disagreement of friends both IRL and URL. Either way, I didn’t feel the need to evangelize on behalf of what was loved, much less defend it. I sat with it and the virtues expanded or lessened, but always hardened. On some fronts, I probably developed an actual taste—consistent and informed preference (okay, somewhat informed)—for the first time in my life.
I mean, look, am I still a spineless jellyfish if you love something and I think it’s blech, or vice versa? Of course! That’s how you make and keep friends!
Some months ago, I was watching a show starring Jerry Seinfeld—one of his Comedians in Cars episodes or the 2002 documentary Comedian; I can’t remember—and he makes fun of the idea of not caring about getting famous. You know the gist. “I don’t care about making it, I just want to be good.” He thinks this is ridiculous for a comedian. His medium is people laughing; the more people laughing the more successful he is. He’s not running a church. Numbers aren’t a misleading and worldly target, they’re the only target. More laughs, please!
Relatedly, when I see something small(ish), beautiful, perfectly constructed, and not very popular, it’s easy to think, “Damn. I wish that had made it at the next level.” It’s wishing well on what deserves well, arguably. It’s Seinfeld’s pragmatism from the perspective of the audience. Isn’t The Assault by Harry Mulisch great? Niche popularity doesn’t do it justice!
All the same, I’m more and more content with being an audience of one. I watch Mythic Quest’s “A Dark Quiet Death” or get exsanguinated by anything Harry Crews wrote and think, “I’m grateful that was made.”3 Maybe I’ll chew on why it was striking or beautiful or bizarre, but the stability of the preference is rooted in the gratitude. If some family member or friend or article uproots it later, all the better, because that too will be a more substantive shift.
I’m sorry if all this carries the acrid air of self-help, but the pandemic broke many of us, or a part of us, in ways both vital and trivial. Work, family, what I store in my garage: for a few months, if not a few years, many given aspects of simply existing were burdened with an unbearable self-importance. An unhealthy dynamic, in my opinion. My relationship to sharing—again, more or less a relationship to social media—was one of those aspects which buckled. I was sick of wanting to share, and yet sharing was one of the few communal activities left intact. I was stuck inside my house, devolving into a generic receptacle of What’s On the Screen. The pressure of enjoying in isolation needed to be shifted.
Even without the pandemic, though, we live in an entertainment world that is both increasingly fragmented in production and still (arguably) monolithic in consumption. There are approximately 500 TV shows (way too many of them good) and over 60,000 tracks on Spotify, but most of us settle for Marvel and old music is apparently killing new music (because of Spotify). The landscape is less likely than ever to deliver a book or a movie that is popular to the same degree that it is artful.
Gratitude cuts through a lot of that noise, both the pressure of too many options and the pressure of joining others in fashionable small talk. I don’t care if I can pass every book I enjoy off to someone else, I’m just glad it was made and that it found me when it did.4 If not a more mature appreciation in itself, gratitude at least creates the mental space for a slower, less besieged enjoyment.
Okay, okay, here are some things (mostly not books!) I kept to myself over the last few years, and I didn’t really even manage that. Almost all of these are popular (probably) because I’m not original.
Palm Springs—Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti’s rom-com Groundhog Day. Darker than I expected, and another jewel in Milioti’s niche-queen crown. Her performance along with Jake Johnson in the aforementioned “A Dark Quiet Death” is one of the inspirations for this whole line of thought. Did anyone see it? It doesn’t matter. I’m very happy the writers and creators of Mythic Quest took Apple’s money and crafted a gut-punch of a short film. I would’ve made this whole entry “A Dark Quiet Death,” in fact, except I mentioned it earlier and that felt like cheating. Also, my brother called the episode, “When Harry Met Sally but sad.”
“Moments” by The Petersens—A song in search of an ending and probably a bridge, too, and performed by what I can only call “The Ideal of 90s Homeschooling Evangelicalism (Obviously They’re White).” I love them, except for when they’re bad. This song in particular sunk deep during 2020, in an almost moody teenage way.
A Hidden Life—Terrence Malick’s masterpiece. Or one of his masterpieces, at least. There was a small corner of the Christian intellectual space that tried to sh*t on this film in some kind of Neil deGrasse Tyson fact-checking mode, and they are wrong and probably boring at parties. This is a three-hour mood-poem about how beautiful the mountains are, how good family life can be even when it’s also deadening, and how the Nazis were (surprise) bad. It’s one of my favorite films of all time. Again, it’s three hours and I watched it at least two-and-a-half times in a two-week span.
Home Video (studio album) by Lucy Dacus—A songwriter whose words actually feel as essential as her melodies. Everyone’s always saying that, but I rarely find it to be true. Probably because I’m terrible with lyrics. It’s a genuine problem. Still, Dacus’s buddy Phoebe Bridgers is always getting praise on the lyrics front, for example, and I haven’t heard anything of hers to match Dacus’s opening to “Cartwheel,” to say nothing of the rest of the album.
The Chronicles of Prydain by Lloyd Alexander—I wish I’d found this fantasy series as a kid. But I’m grateful, genuinely grateful, I found it when I did. All of the books are lovely, even the weak third entry. Taran Wanderer is probably a mid-grade all-timer; the five together certainly are.
Thanks for reading. Ignore everything I’ve said and share this newsletter.
I love you all.
Amid myriad other reasons, another motivation for sharing (especially online), and which is probably a corollary to sharing for approval, is “Sharing as an authority or to establish authority.” Often this is benevolent. Honestly, this newsletter more or less derives from such an impulse: I think and read a lot (ish) and even though I’m an idiot maybe me talking about some of that publicly will be helpful or compelling. Maybe you’ll like one of the books or ideas I splash against the wall. Or maybe you’ll enjoy the monkey slinging his, uh, digestions for baser reasons. All are welcome.
Have I always enjoyed most things privately? Yes. I’m not insane. Or a vlogger. I just expanded the private to ideas or articles or shows, or whatever, that I would have wanted to share in the past.
Gratitude might not be the right word for Harry Crews. I’m surprised that was made? I’m worried that was made? I’m grateful I’ve survived what I read, perhaps? He’s pretty brutal, y’all. But he’s stuck with me.
There’s definitely a whole thesis lurking about what kinds of media we want to share. Most people seem to enjoy music in the private way I’m suggesting more than they do prestige dramas, for example, but I don’t think it’s purely about cultural cachet.