The most beautiful essay I’ve read this month is also the most painful. It’s the art critic—and my friend—Peter Schjeldahl reflecting on his likely fatal lung cancer diagnosis. It’s a story about death, but also about life, and even, in many ways, about love. And because it’s Peter, it’s brilliant, searing, and even funny throughout. “Swatted a fly the other day and thought, Outlived you.”
I was moved too, by this piece by Tom Junod, reflecting on his friendship with a man who we could use in this divided country right now: Mr. Rogers. “The real job that we have,” he once said, was to “make goodness attractive in the so-called next millennium.”
If we’re to believe in goodness, then perhaps we should also believe in redemption—and in the fact that sometimes, even with the darkest crimes, there are mitigating factors. Here is my old boss Lincoln Caplan’s striking American Scholar cover story, “This Man Should Not Be Executed.” And this terrific story from The Atavist about a murder in New Orleans, a faulty case, and a man who was able to help fight for freedom for his prison-mates but not, in time, for himself.
In the world of tech, I highly recommend this essay, by Joanne McNeil on the nature of surveillance. And Lauren Goode’s cover story this month on why the Queen of Shitty Robots decided to renounce her crown. Plus this smart piece by Akash Kapur about the threat of digital nationalism. And if that doesn’t give you enough to ponder, Jia Tolentino has a few thoughts about the rise of the perfect, so-often-replicated Instagram face.
I also wrote two things I hope you’ll be interested in: this profile of Andrew Yang, the candidate of Silicon Valley who is driving a Humvee the wrong way up the 101. And this essay about how software engineers should study the example of civil engineers as they try to undo the damage done in recent years. It’s something I hope we’ll discuss even more in the year to come.
That’s a lot, even for the end of the year. But let me end with one of the many moving passages from the story I mentioned first, from Peter.
“I’m not in physical pain as I write, though I tire quickly and nap often. I have been receiving, every three weeks, an immunotherapy infusion—not chemo, and not a cure—which, at the outset, the doctor said had a thirty-five-per-cent chance of slowing the disease. (At those odds in Vegas, you’re broke within an hour, but in baseball you’re a cinch for the Hall of Fame.) A recent scan shows marked improvement, likely extending my prospect of survival. But I have to wonder if, whatever betides, I can stay upbeat in spirit. A thing about dying is that you can’t consult anyone who has done it. No rehearsals. No mulligans.”
I hope, Peter, you do maintain your spirit, that the odds get even better, and that you’re setting off fireworks again in the Catskills in the summer to come.
P.s. If you enjoy this newsletter and think other folks would too, please forward to them or tell them they can sign up here.