For most people who work in writing or publishing, reading is a reasonable professional expectation. If you’re an editorial assistant, however, it’s basically your entire job. In this week’s Read Along, Megha Majumdar, an editorial assistant at the book publishing arm of innovative new platform Catapult, shares with us her voluminous reading habits. In addition to her full-time Catapult job, Megha is a nonfiction writer, holding forth on topics as meaty as the meaning of nostalgia and journalism in Rwanda when she’s not interviewing luminaries like critic A.O. Scott and novelist Lily King. Herewith, Megha on Russian spies, child-sized newspapers (an idea with legs!), and why reading difficult fiction can invigorate, rather than depress.
Saturday, May 7, 2016
Last night, at the One Story debutante ball, where I ate tiny raspberry-brie tarts and danced, I also picked up a copy of Matthew Cheney’s Blood. On this grey morning I stay in bed and read the opening story, an unsettling short in which a little girl fashions a doll house into a prison. The story’s interest in confinement travels with me to the next thing I read—an excerpt of Pamela Erens’s novel Eleven Hours on Lit Hub. This is a novel narrated by a woman about to give birth. A stage of life in which not only is her body confinement, but the hospital staff appear to conspire to constrict her freedoms. Yet the woman feels that she and the medical staff are, given their roles, in worlds that are not overlapping, only adjacent. She considers, in one line, “the privacy of [her] pain.” Pain that is not only unshareable material, but also the material of a cage.
Lighter reading follows. I read a profile of Ewan McGregor in Rhapsody Magazine, written by my friend, Alex Hoyt. I used to watch McGregor’s travel show, whose name I forget, when I was a middle-schooler in India dreaming of traveling the world. In the show, he and a friend rode around the world on their motorcycles. I am relieved to find that the spirit of the traveler appears in this piece, not in an overt way, but through a sense of humility and honesty regarding failure.
Wednesday, May 11
As editorial assistant, I am always reading manuscripts, and in the days between Saturday and today, all of my reading time is devoted to manuscripts.
I do read, this evening, a dramatic, movie-like article which leaves me thrilled, in the quaint sense of the word, and unsettled. Remember the Russian spies who got arrested in an American suburb back in 2011? A reporter for the Guardian spoke to the couple’s two sons, who agreed to speak about their difficult—and probably bewildering—experience as the brothers, living in Europe, are petitioning the Canadian government to reinstate their citizenship (is my understanding of the situation). The sons of the spies, who first lived in Canada, recall childhoods which seemed happy and normal at the time, but in hindsight had blurry aspects.
For example, their grandparents disappeared from their lives when the boys turned eleven. Before that, they had traveled to Europe to meet them. Now, the brothers believe visits stopped as soon as they grew old enough to realize that their grandparents were not Canadian, and did not speak English. Had the boys realized that they had Russian heritage, the awareness might have undone a lot of their parents’ work. Isn’t it strange that their work was to cultivate an unremarkable North American family? Such slow-burning intelligence work. I would not have thought these operations were then, and probably are now, underway.
The piece leaves me imagining webs of intelligence and counter-intelligence which span the world—intelligence is such a benign word for it.
Thursday, May 12
Today I read a hard copy of Bookforum. It feels luxurious. I am reminded of mornings growing up in India when I would read the large, loose-leafed newspaper, either the Statesman or the Times of India, and, struggling to hold the curling, dipping pages together, wish somebody would invent a child-sized newspaper that I could hold in my hands. Bookforum, though not at all child-sized in its thought, feels like the physical incarnation of the newspaper my ten-year-old self wanted. Easy to hold. Pinned together so the pages cannot, even if they want to, go sliding across the floor.
Bookforum, as usual, contains expansive reviews which could stand alone as essays. I learn that the first lighthouses in America were built at the sites of shipwrecks. There is a website, another review essay tells me, called jailbedspace.com. It’s true. Prison administrators use the website to find free beds at other facilities. Such is the absurd overcrowding of American prisons. In another review essay, I read about Fang Lizhi, a Chinese political dissident who, in America, prefers to introduce himself by his professional identity as a scientist.
Friday, May 13
Bedtime reading over the past week has been Cynthia Barnett’s supremely engaging book, Rain: A Natural and Cultural History. Traveling from the downfall of the Indus Valley civilization to the invention of the Macintosh, the book covers a large field of research and amusing anecdotes on water and weather. So I am immediately intrigued to see a New York Times Magazine article, via Longform, on a man named Gavin Pretor-Pinney, who appears to be causing some ripples in the world of cloud science. Pretor-Pinney established the Cloud Appreciation Society, whose photos of clouds contributed to the cataloging of a new kind of cloud! The Asperitas looks like a ceiling from which cloths filled with grains have been hung to save them from mice. This is the unwieldy comparison which comes to mind. In a speech, Pretor-Pinney says a very interesting thing. “We don’t live beneath the sky,” he says. “We live within it.”
One of my favorite magazines is The Caravan, and while I am lingering between the completion of one manuscript and the beginning of another (reading them, I mean!) I browse the archives. I read about a Bollywood script-supervisor, a person who ensures continuity in a film, a particular challenging task as films are shot out of sequence. I have great affection for Bollywood films, and don’t get to watch many of them here in New York. This great piece of reportage makes me feel a bit closer to Bombay.
A story I have read many times, and come back to for a quick dip today, is Tillie Olsen’s “I Stand Here Ironing.” I am still in the space of lingering between two manuscripts. The story is, as you might know, not really a “palate cleanser.” Not at all—what would such a story be? Rather, it is a reminder of the gravity of the fiction. It moves me to consider what the following manuscript could do.