Trying to Make Sense

This week, I came into writing my blog post with no idea what to write. Usually, I am brimming with ideas but end up waiting until the last minute to write—a terrible lifelong habit of procrastinating.

I was going to write about Shrek and the movie’s influence on internet culture. However, upon searching for the said movie, we did not have the first movie in our collection (I have since put in a purchase request to rectify this). Aside from this slight misstep, I could barely get past a paragraph. No matter how much I wanted to write about people showing up to Smashmouth concerts wearing Shrek costumes, I was plagued with other thoughts.

I am seeing the headlines of the Taliban taking over the Afghanistan government and endangering the lives of citizens there, especially women and children. The Delta variant of Covid spreads like wildfire while vaccination rates are stagnant. Reminders that climate change is here by checking the weather forecast. Listening to the soundtrack for “Inside,” where Bo Burnham is singing about Jeff Bezos ruling the world. The other day, a patron asked me if I think everything in the world is getting worse due to Covid. As a librarian, I could point to resources and books, but my simple answer was, “I don’t know.”

Looking around my apartment, I stare at piles of books that I either haven’t read or only read a few chapters. One book that I always land my eyes on is Olivia Laing’s Funny Weather: Art in an Emergency. My sister gifted me a copy of this book last year. It’s striking bubble gum pink cover with a David Wojnarowicz photograph of a person’s face emerging from the dirt.

Funny Weather

‘Funny Weather’ is a compilation of essays Laing wrote from biographical details of artists from the 20th century, such as Jean- Michel Basquiat to Georgia O’Keeffe. Her other essays are also reflections of modern life and literary reviews.

In Laing’s forward, she writes about why she picked the title ‘Funny Weather.’ Even though it was written in early 2019, Laing could feel the weight of the constant destructive news cycle. The neverending amount of despair that is written on the internet. From the actual weather to the political climate, Laing turned to art to make sense of everything. For a moment of reflection of external and internal turmoil. As I read this, I was reminded how it had been ages since I last went to an art museum due to the pandemic. I felt so removed from that space that I rarely thought about it despite studying studio art in my undergraduate studies.

One quote stood out to me and it reads:

"I don’t think art has a duty to be beautiful or uplifting, and some of the work I’m most drawn to refuses to traffic in either of those qualities. What I care about more, and what forms the uniting interest in nearly all the essays and criticism gathered here, are the ways in which it’s concerned with resistance and repair."

Living in Data

Included in the other books in my to-be-read pile is Living in Data by Jer Thorp. I picked this up because the cover art looked terrific (you may have already noticed a trend here). Upon reading the cover jacket, Thorp, an artist and a writer, writes about how data is collected, analyzed, and forms opinions and policies. He notes that when data is collected it still seems like cold, hard evidence; it will always have flaws mainly because humans are the ones to collect and analyze that said data.

Every day, I look at the numbers of Covid-19 cases and the rates of vaccinations. Data on the number of cases and deaths. Numbers and figures. It goes for eons. I have realized so far from reading that data that it is not as clear-cut as we all want it to be. The information that is analyzed can even be turned into insidious motives that lead to marginalization and discrimination. 

A quote I am plucking from ‘Living in Data’:

"I write this book with a great sense of urgency, though not, I admit, with a surfeit of hope. Living in data today is, for the most part, terrible. To live in a data is to be used, to be without agency, and to be overwhelmed with complexity. It is to be lost, bewildered, marginalized, harmed. It may be that we are learning, slowly, how to adjust to these conditions."

Notes of A Native Son

The last book that I have picked is Notes of a Native Son by James Baldwin. Another cover that has an incredible photograph of Baldwin. There is a reason why Baldwin’s writing is still relevant today. Not only because systemic racism is as prevalent today as it was when Baldwin was alive, but his analysis of it still applies. In 1955, when Notes of a Native Son was published, Baldwin wrote about the contradictions that he saw as a black writer. The weight that is put on him and other black writers to write about race.

Here is one passage that stood out to me:

"The bookshelves groan under the weight of information, and everyone therefore considers himself informed. And this information, furthermore, operates usually (generally, popularly) to reinforce traditional attitudes. Of traditional attitudes there are only two- For or Against- and I, personally, find it difficult to say which attitude has caused me the most pain. I am speaking as a writer; from a social point of view, I am perfectly aware that the change from ill-will to good-will, however motivated, however imperfect, however, expressed, is better than no change at all."

As I have started to read all of these books of collected essays, they link together. To the naked eye, these are some aesthetically pleasing books that have different subject matter. However, all of these writers have one thing in common: They are all trying to make sense of how the world is and how it can be better. One thing I have found is that they are honest. There is nothing flowery with their use of language or trying to sound high brow. It is up to the reader to decide how to view the world and what they can do to change it.

I still do not have all the answers, and I still cannot answer that question I asked earlier. These books cannot prevent my feelings of existential crisis as impending doom looms on my Instagram feed. It does help keep me from unraveling and getting me to see what I can do to make things better.

-Margaret Burke is a Technology Services Assistant at Lawrence Public Library.