Design: Bleak House Revisited

Trying my hand at book cover design with a classic.

Revisiting the classic

This is a difficult one to capture with a cover. The tone, themes, and plot do not necessarily match the title, but the book is so full of life and characters that anything short of a parade fails to capture its vitality. With this design I am leaning into the title itself.

Other designers appear to have made the same choice with this one.

I’m much more fond of the Vintage and Penguin editions below, however. These are much more engaging and do a better job of capturing the story’s themes in a glance.

I still have a lot to learn about cover design, but I think this is a pretty OK first outing. Authors: if you’d like to work with me on a design for your book’s cover, get in touch!

The Lost World of the Naturalist

This week I am reading a classic naturalist’s work, Edwin Way Teale’s North With the Spring. This book is a must-read for anyone interested in Florida nature, but it should also be near the top of the list for anyone interested in how to be a naturalist. I picked up the book for the former purpose, but found myself enthralled by the latter. As an aside, this is one of the many ways I am enriched by breaking bread with the dead. I approach every book with an idea of where it will lead me, but I never end up in that place. Recent authors don’t often take me too far from the path I picture through the book, because we have shared many of the same experiences; going back only as far as fifty years, though, leads to wild and wonderful (and often chilling, challenging, and vexing) places.  

I entered North with the Spring with a historian’s interest in how Teale thought of Florida in the 1940s. His idea was a compelling one: starting somewhere at the southern tip of Florida, he would follow the spring as it made its inexorable way to the wintry northland of New England. The book was popular in its day, and it has endured long enough in library stacks to have inspired others to retrace the path Teale took up the spine of the seaboard. I started the book with a research goal in mind, but I was immediately blown away by how Teale lived – and how different it is from the way so many of us live today. In contrast to our capsular civilization of AirPods, air conditioned and noise-canceling car interiors, tightly closed and carefully climate-controlled offices and apartments, Teale describes a way of living close to nature, constantly listening, looking, smelling, and most of all, responding.  

Here is an example. “Each morning,” Teale wrote of the “pre-spring days” early in his journey, “we awoke while it was still, to the steady throbbing of fishing boats moving out among the Ten Thousand Islands of the Gulf.” Awakening further, Teale described a rush of sensory information. “With the earliest daylight,” he continued, “came the strident alarm-clock of the red-bellied woodpecker amid the palms outside our cabin….” Stepping outside into the cool February morning, Teale and his wife found “exciting new odors… all around us in the perfumed air of the dawn.”  

I read this and think about my morning routine. I awaken in a sealed room. I do not hear birds. A ceiling fan whirrs overhead, quietly humming, while a tower fan drones on the other side of the room. The air conditioner hums through the ducts. Another fan spins noisily in the mint green heat exchanger supporting the air conditioner just below the bedroom window. In the bathroom I am beyond the sound of the fans, but still comfortably sealed within.  I hear the nearest songbirds—a dueling Cardinal and Carolina Wren at this time of year– whistling their morning tunes from magnolia trees outside.   

In contrast with Teale, I am distant from nature. I am almost hermetically sealed in my capsule.  

While driving, Teale noticed plants along the roadway, changes in the communities of birds flocking overhead, minute details about the weather, small sounds, flashes of color. Taking a detour near Waycross, Georgia on the way down to the Everglades, he reported: “As we reached a stretch of swampy woodland, a storm of sound assailed our ears. All the trees were alive with blackbirds. Thousands swarmed among the branches, filled with the excitement of migration time. They were incessantly in motion, hopping, flying, alighting, combining their voices in a deafening clamor.”  

I do not remember the last time I heard a “deafening clamor” of migrating birds outside my car window, and I suspect I am not alone. I look around and notice that the windows of every car around me are tightly sealed. We move through the world in capsular isolation. Meanwhile, Teale’s attention to the natural world was unaffected even by the clattering iron of rail travel. “If you come north by the train in midspring and have an ear for the swamp music of toads and frogs,” he explained, “you will become aware of something interesting. You seem to be running backward in time. As the spring becomes less and less advanced as you go north, you begin with the latest-appearing of the marsh-callers and progress backward to the earliest of the peepers.”  

I am reading Teale’s account of the coming spring sunburnt and muscle-sore from a long paddle down the Wakulla River last weekend. For Teale—at least the character he plays in North With the Spring—nature was the substance within which life unfolded, inseparable from daily existence. For me, it is a commodity to be consumed. I engage the natural world fresh from the sporting goods store like a student joining the intramural league. The commodification of nature is nothing new, of course. David Nelson shows, for example, how the Civilian Conservation Corps and Florida business interests worked together to develop the modern tourism industry in the Florida Park System.  

Still, I can’t help but think that the separation of human from nature is rapidly and irreversibly accelerating. Teale drove with the windows down because his car didn’t have an air conditioner. Would he drive with the windows up today, podcast blaring? He heard frogs and birds from the windows of Pullman coaches because that was how people traveled across the country at that time. Would he put on his headphones and watch a movie on the plane at 35,000 feet today? He woke to the sounds of boats and birds in the Ten Thousand Islands because open windows were the only way to cool the room. Today, like the rest of us, he would probably wake up to the roar of the air conditioner beneath the hotel window blowing ice cold air into the room.  

These are things I don’t want to give up, but North With the Spring reminds me of the beautiful, natural things I have give up in exchange for comfort.   

Syllabus: February 14th

A list of interesting things new and old that I’ve read or experienced this week. I do not endorse or even necessarily agree with anything on the other side of these links.


Adegbuyi, Fadeke. “LinkedIn’s Alternate Universe: How the professional platform makes networking weird.” — Adegbuyi says what we’ve all been thinking: LinkedIn is weird.

Evans, Benedict. “Retail, Rent, and Things that Don’t Scale.” — Evans offers some interesting thoughts on the retail experience and, as a result, challenges readers to stop thinking of Amazon as a sort of indomitable dragon.

Ford, Paul. “The Secret, Essential Geography of the Office.” Wired. — What makes a successful essay? One thing you can do is take something commonplace, like the office, and make us see it in a new way. Consider the passage: “I think of those as ‘weeping paths,’ part of the secret map of every office. You cannot sob at your desk, so you must go on a journey, smiling at the floor, until you find a place where emotion can flow.“Litvinenko, Yuri.

“Windows’ Little Brother, Bearer of Microsoft’s Grand Ambitions.” 30pin. you think that a history of Windows CE couldn’t possibly be interesting. Think again. This article sheds even more light on how Microsoft’s total dedication to the Windows brand between around 2002 to around 2010 seriously damaged the company’s ability to execute anything else.

Lowe, Katie. “The Rise of the Digital Gothic.” CrimeReads. — A thought-provoking critical perspective from an unexpected place. Perhaps, by placing us in constant contact with the many ghostly presences of capital, technology is hastening the end of the end of history.

Rizvic, Sejla. “Everybody Hates Millennials: Gen Z and the Tiktok Generation Wars.” The Walrus. — Just to be clear, generational discourse is bullshit. But since we’re surrounded by people who believe in it, and then act on that belief, articles like this one are necessary. Roy, Sumana. “The Problem with the Postcolonial Syllabus.” The Chronicle of Higher Education. — Roy asks, what’s the matter with merely taking pleasure in novels? Why must novels written by authors living in “postcolonial” settings impart some sort of moral or offer some deep criticism?


The Little Things.


Death by Unga Bunga. Heavy Male Insecurity.

Various Artists. Cuba: Music and Revolution: Experiments in Latin Music, 1975-1985.


Andrew Salgado. —


Takram. “Moriota Shoten.” — profile of a unique bookstore in Japan which sells one book at a time. Benedict Evans discusses this store in his article above.


Coupland, Douglas. Bit Rot: Stories & Essays. New York: Blue Rider Press, 2016.

Cory, Cynie. Here on Rue Morgue Avenue. Tallahassee, Fla.: Hysterical Books, 2018.

See you next week! (Or, you could keep an eye out for more writing, photos, art, and other stuff here during the week)…

Syllabus: January 29th

A list of interesting things new and old that I’ve read or experienced this week. I do not endorse or even necessarily agree with anything on the other side of these links.


Broderick, Ryan. “Happy Birthday, Guy Fieri,” at Garbage Day. — Because after I had read or heard about eighty GameStop and wallstreetbets explainers this week I was thrilled to read: “It is both terrifying and liberating to look clear-eyed into the meaningless void at the heart of modern life and accept it for what it is.” This looks like a decent mailing list, actually.

Cho, Adrian. “The cloak-and-dagger tale behind this year’s most anticipated result in particle physics,” at Mel. — If the wild intro that uses the R.E.M. song about the beating of Dan Rather in 1986 as a way to start an article about particle physics doesn’t grab you, perhaps the science will. Bonus: fans of Bruno Latour and the anthropology of science will definitely nerd out on the breathless description of laboratory heroics.

Grimm, David. “Ice age Siberian hunters may have domesticated dogs 23,000 years ago,” at Science. — Fuck it, I like dogs and I wanted to include this one.

Klee, Miles. “Everything you Never Wanted to Know about the ‘Sigma Male.'” — Machines turn inputs into outputs. The internet is a machine that transforms time into ever more toxic forms of masculinity.


Pahokee. Directed by Ivete Lucas and Patrick Bresnan. 2020. A beautiful documentary on four high school students in the titular town, a small (by South Florida standards) farming community down on Lake Okeechobee. The link goes to Kanopy. If you have a library card you can probably watch the film for free and then choose a few more to watch gratis, too.

Vast of Night. Directed by Andrew Patterson. 2020. — Look, this isn’t Spielberg, but it captures a little tiny bit of the magic from Close Encounters while imparting its own awareness of space, pace, and light. It’s a memorable film on Amazon Prime.


If you like the ’90s you will probably enjoy this playlist of songs from a 1996 compilation called This Is… Trip Hop. I found this CD at Goodwill and love it.


Florida landscapes by Eleanor Blair at Signature Art Gallery in Tallahassee.

Aryo Toh Djojo’s “Transmission” @ Wilding Cran Gallery.


Clarke, Susanna. Piranesi. New York: Bloomsbury, 2020.

Cheryl Dumesnil, Showtime at the Ministry of Lost Causes. University of Pittsburgh Press, 2016.


If you were struck by the ineffable urge this week to point your phone out into the cold, lonely void and project an image of Bernie Sanders sitting in a chair somewhere out there, you might like this Sitting Bernie AR Meme. Use your phone and press “AR” to enjoy yourself for a few seconds.

I was inspired by Nicely Small, a curated list of small businesses in Vancouver created by the design firm Engine Digital. Tallahassee needs something like this.

Review: That One Should Disdain Hardships

Musonius Rufus, Gaius. That One Should Disdain Hardships: The Teachings of a Roman Stoic. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2020. (Link to publisher)

Here is a thought experiment to amuse you in quarantine. How long would you stay inside for a million dollars? 

Could you last two weeks? A month? 

Now, how long would you stay inside to save a life? 

If the answer is that you would spend less time indoors to save a life than you would be willing to spend indoors for money, the first century Roman philosopher Musonius Rufus would like a word. “When we see acrobats face without concern their difficult tasks and risk their very lives in performing them,” he asked listeners, as reported in this reissue of a classic translation, “turning somersaults over upturned swords or walking ropes… all of which they do for a miserably small recompense, shall we not be ready to endure hardship for the sake of complete happiness?” If people are willing to go to endless trouble for money, notoriety, or sex, the philosopher wondered, why not for virtue? 

Maybe you will argue that saving another’s life is a lesser source of happiness than receiving a large sum of money. If that is the case, you can stop now. This book is not for you. It is probably the case that there are no books for you and you should just go shopping instead of reading this. If you agree that sacrifice for the greater good of another is worth more than sacrifice for your own fleeting pleasures, you’re already a long way to understanding what Musonius wanted his students to know. This book is for you.

It feels strange to indulge in the reading of stoic philosophy while so many of my peers, friends, and colleagues worry themselves to the core over the stock market and the novel coronavirus, but it is perhaps at times like these that the pursuit of the perfection of reason is most needed. Boethius, for example–that’s another philosopher, who lived much later than Musonius and found himself on the wrong side of a political feud in Theodoric’s court–found strength against certain, terrible death in the consolation of philosophy. Captured and brought low, weeping alone in his cell, Boaethius was surprised to see philosophy enter the room, personified as a woman. After his “nurse” Philosophy wiped away Boaethius’ tears, “I drank in the clear air of heaven,” he exclaimed, and the two conversed until the philosopher-politician’s long night of the soul was over and he could face his Ostrogothic executioner with courage. 

Our times are not as brutal as Boethius’ times, but these are the strangest days I have ever known. Most of us alive today in the United States were born in a time of extreme cynicism, and most of our institutions glorify the modern meaning of the term–that individuals are motivated primarily by self-interest, and that this is good. We were born as well under the shadow of a strange inversion of ancient cynicism. We were born in the time of greedy dogs. 

Ancient cynics argued that the pursuit of eudaimonia was the chief end of philosophy. Actually, they thought it was the primary goal of humanity. Eudaimonia is one of those complicated words that doesn’t quite have a match in English. The closest we can come to it is happiness, but eudaimonia is not just any kind of happiness. Eudaimonia is the kind of happiness that comes from living the good life, a life of virtue. To get there, ancient philosophers argued, one needed to live the right way–a philosophical life, of course–but what a philosophical life was supposed to be like changed over time. 

Before the stoics, there were the cynics. We don’t have a great match for eudaimonia in English, but we do for cynic. The word comes from the Greek term κυνικός, or kynikos, which means “dog-like.” The cynics believed that one should live free of attachments and, as a result, free of shame. One of the most famous cynics, Diogenes, lived in the market like a dog. He slept in a big jar, is supposed to have defecated wherever he pleased, and masturbated in public. He wandered around carrying a lamp in the middle of the day looking for an “honest man.” We know his type well, I think. Diogenes was a troll. Unlike our trolls, though, Diogenes would choose life over money. Our dogs are greedy. 

Diogenes and the other dogs in the market. Diogenes Sitting in his Tub by Jean-Léon Gérôme (1860)

The stoics shared Diogenes’ belief that virtue was better expressed through action than theory, but held that ethics, rather than asceticism, paved the path to virtue. This book brings together 53 lectures and fragments from one of stoicism’s lesser lights, but Cora Lutz’s 1947 translation still sparkles. Stoic ethics are on fine display here.

Modern readers are likely to find Musonius a bit conservative on one hand, but may be surprised by the topics this man of the first century CE lectured upon. He argued for the sanctity of marriage, railed against abortion, and one even finds–if read in a certain key–echoes of our contemporary debate over children’s vaccines:

“If a father who is not a physician and not experienced in matters of health or sickness should prescribe for his invalid son something which was harmful and injurious, and the son was aware of that fact, surely in not following his father’s prescription he is not disobeying and is not disobedient, is he?” 

“Must One Obey One’s Parents Under All Circumstances?”

On the other hand, Musonius argued that women should be trained in philosophy as well as men. He lectured kings on their philosophical duty. He advocated for a simple, pastoral life. He offered opinions on haircuts, beards, furniture. Philosophy in the ancient world was an all-encompassing domain, a pursuit that Musonius and his counterparts placed on a level above skilled professions, like practicing medicine or piloting a ship.

“men who enter the other professions have not had their souls corrupted beforehand and have not learned the opposite of what they are going to be taught, but the ones who start out to study philosophy have been born and reared in an environment filled with corruption and evil, and therefore turn to virtue in such a state that they need a longer and more thorough training.”

“On Training”

Ultimately, Musonius was concerned with embracing the “true good,” and it is this pursuit which resonates most clearly with me in this plague year. The groaning multitudes on Twitter, on television, on facebook, pull a rhetorical rope back and forth across an ideological divide, twisting every event, every shade of meaning, into tools to aid their political struggle. Who among them is right? I know how I would answer, but the voice of the stoic calls not so fast! “[T]ake the common man,” Musonius inveighs. “[W]hen asked whether he is stupid or intelligent, not one will confess to being stupid; or again, when asked whether he is just or unjust, not one will say that he is unjust.” He continues,

“In the same way, if one asks him whether he is temperate or intemperate, he replies at once that he is temperate; and finally, if one asks whether he is good or bad, he would say that he is good, even though he can name no teacher of virtue or mention any study or practice of virtue he has ever made. Of what, then, is this evidence if not of the existence of an innate inclination of the human soul toward goodness and nobleness, and of the presence of the seeds of virtue in each one of us?”  

“That Man is Born with an Inclination toward Virtue”

Musonius argued, two thousand years ago, that the perfection of reason was the means by which one could water and fertilize these seeds. This slim volume of lectures and fragments may not be the fertilizer you need, but it is a valuable contribution to any philosophical library. 

Books and the Geology of the Soul

I spent a series of cold, foggy mornings when I was a young man of about twenty-one working at a door shop in Jacksonville reading On The Road on my way to work. It was my second time reading the book, but the first time I really got what Kerouac was trying to do. I was haunted by the people and the time, haunted by the palpable vibrancy of Kerouac’s telling of that madcap journey in a way that colored my whole perception of my hometown and myself. Those sodium-lit winter mornings haunt me still. They remind me of what a book can do, how it can shape us. Let me explain.

Jacksonville is an old railroad town. You come across it sometimes in old novels when people are taking the train South with a Capital S. James Bond passes through town on the old Seaboard Silver Meteor in Live and Let Die, for instance, where he grabs breakfast in a greasy spoon around the corner from the station before climbing back aboard and moving on. These travelers never stick around, but it was a grand train station–which is still there, incidentally, only today they have gun and exotic bird shows in a convention space that used to shelter weary travelers and anxious lovers. An old steam locomotive sits behind a fence outside, holding out brute silent testimony to the grand past for anyone who will stop and listen. Hundreds of thousands of people drive by the locomotive everyday as they make their way in and out of town from the surrounding sprawl.

I was one of them when I worked about a mile away from the Convention Center. I had about an hour-long bus ride from my apartment way out on the southern fringe of the city to the steps of the Convention Center–look, I know this geography doesn’t mean much to you, but it pleases me to tell it–where I would jump off the bus and double back toward Stockton Street through a tunnel that ran up underneath the Interstate 95 overpass. I had an hour with the book, therefore, in the peculiarly calm atmosphere of a city bus rumbling across town in the dark of a cold winter morning. Putting the book away and climbing off of the bus was like sliding out of a warm blanket, gasping as the icy air blasting across the St. John’s River slapped me in the face. People don’t think Florida is cold. Those people have not walked a North Florida mile to work at Dark Thirty o’ clock on a January morning.

I wanted to be the kind of guy with a book hanging out of my back pocket, so there it was; and I remember, for some reason, taking it out of my pocket and reading as I walked. Now, to get to work from the Convention Center, I had to walk over about five railroad crossings that cut through the old half-assed industrial zone where our shop was located. And, without a doubt, there would be a train on one of those crossings. Probably parked. I could wait for the train to shudder to life and clear the tracks eventually, which would be smart, but forbearance is for the aged. So I put the book away and faced hard reality once again to climb up over the behemoth flatbed cars and continue the journey with the book slapping around in the back pocket of my hand-me-down blue work pants. My pants were spotted with caulk and dyed a dull white by fiberglass dust blowing out of door machines, and I knew I was climbing over the same rails and walking by the same warehouses that stood when Kerouac wrote and it was somehow profoundly meaningful for me one morning in particular, I remember, as the sun came up over the end of the road and rails.

Something about the trains; the morning night world; the bus and the tunnel; the alternating warmth and cold, dark and light; the variety of light, from harsh fluorescent to dim, orange sodium; the blue-gray dawn; the contrast between Sal Paradise’s free-wheeling life on the road and my routine working in a wood shop for eight dollars an hour; something about all of that came together like a fine recipe that somehow contributed to who I am today. I’m sure any reader could share a similar story of strange alchemy, of a worn paperback working with time and place to shape them into something else. It is a beautiful geology of the soul.

Milo Talon and the Walmart Readers

I saw two ternagers sitting on the floor quietly reading in the Walmart books section earlier today, and something about the sight nourished my soul in a way few things have recently. As I’m wrapped up in a throw on the couch reading a Louis L’Amour paperback, it feels good to join them in spirit tonight.

I’ve mentioned Walmart books here before, I know. I have a real fondness for books from the grocery store, from the dollar store, from Walmart. These were the books that nourished me when I was a kid. I can remember standing in the magazine aisle at Winn-Dixie, choosing a paperback or a copy of Mad magazine to read on long summer car rides. I vividly and fondly remember most of those books, even as I’ve been trained by grad school and the middle brow internet literary culture to scoff at popcorn writers in favor of important literature. These books are not a guilty pleasure, but a wholesome and sincere one.

Tonight I’m standing with the kids from Walmart alongside Milo Talon in the shadow of St. Charles Peak. It feels like a good way to end 2018.

Women’s Rage

The Cut is featuring an excerpt from Rebecca Traister’s forthcoming book, Good and Mad: the Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger this afternoon and it is a doozy. If you’re interested in American history, in politics, or pretty much anything, you should definitely go read it. As a historian, I’m intrigued by the argument Traister lays out:

Look to the start, the germinating seeds, of nearly every major social and political movement that has shaped this nation — from abolition to suffrage to labor to civil rights and LGBTQ rights to, yes, feminism — and you will find near its start the passionate dissent of women.

I’m inclined to agree, but very much looking forward to working through the book. The historiography of women’s dissent has the potential to completely reframe our understanding of American political history. The book will be out October 2nd.

An Open Letter to the Author of Bitter Marginalia in Reminiscences of the Second Seminole War by John Bemrose.

Radical Equality

Dear Austin, 

Is it OK if I call you Austin? That’s what I imagine, and you haven’t given me much else to work with, so there we are. Me and you, Austin.

Austin, what happened? Until now, you were enjoying this book. Back there when we were reading about “friendly and simple-minded” Minorcans, you kept to yourself. You stayed quiet, too—with a grim set of the jaw, I like to imagine, but I’m not so sure—when “the unfeeling buyers of blood” at the St. Augustine slave market “[caviled] over the qualifications of human beings, with the coarseness of cattle jobbers.” “Picturesque” Indians (who were also, I’m sure you remember reading, “great beggars”); a Black Seminole interpreter “with his paucity of ideas”; Native “children of the woods” who wouldn’t hesitate to kill a “even a lisping babe!”; all went without comment. But not this. So why now?

I’ve been thinking about it, and maybe, Austin, feminism is your jam. All that stuff about race and ethnicity is someone else’s fight. Maybe it’s so clearly wrong-headed that it doesn’t merit marginal argument. But this, this is Austin’s battlefield: women can be unprincipled and wicked, too! Men and women alike can have hard hearts! Which, hey, you’re not wrong. Fair enough.

But I don’t think that’s true. I think you had an axe to grind when you read this paragraph. And it’s OK, we’ve all been there. Like, just this morning on the way to work I was stopped at an intersection waiting for someone to pass so I could turn right; but then, right at the last second, they whipped the car into a turn. No signal! And then the next car did the same thing—and no, they weren’t in a turn lane, I know what you’re thinking, Austin, this was a two-lane road—and then the next one, and the next one, until finally the light changed and I was stuck. I could have turned ages ago if only I had known! So then, later this morning, someone was trying to talk to me about an unanswered email and I couldn’t wait to say, “I know, it’s just like people who don’t use their blinkers! Why do people do that?” And they just sort of laughed and then kept going on about the email.

I’m guessing that whenever it was that you read this, Austin, you felt pretty much the same way about women. Someone would say, “Know who was a real piece of work? Mussolini, that’s who,” and you would say, “I know, I know, but women can be evil, too.” Or someone else would go, “I burnt my fingers on my toast this morning,” and you would say, “yeah, kinda like women can burn your heart.”

If you still feel the need to scribble your rage in old memoirs, OK. The past is a safe space: lived-in, comfortable. That’s one of the reasons we historians like to spend so much time there: we already know the bad parts of the movie, and we know the heroes and villains can’t hear us or object when we grind our axes on their words.

But, Austin, we can also talk about it if you want. I think you might need to talk about it.

All the best,


On the American Road: Hotels of North America



Like many young Americans longing for autonomy, I was once transformed by On The Road. It is a book rich with adolescent delights: an uneasy balance between navel-gazing and catharsis, a few tantalizing moments of prurience, a restless tapping of the foot, a bantam pulse. It was a book I could wear like a jacket or ponder closer to the skin, and I never looked at the highway, the bus station, or the dented stainless sheathing of passenger rail cars with quite the same gaze ever again. The road cuts through the heart of my imagination.

As important as On The Road has been to my life, though, I have only read it twice. The first time, I was somewhere in the middle of junior high, fumbling my way through a dog-eared Viking critical edition. I remember the used paperback well—unlike my first dog, oddly, or my first beer. It was spare: a deep and stolid yellow, embellished merely with a line drawing of a viking ship in an oval frame at the bottom of the cover that could have equally been the sly Ulysses’s trireme plying the wine-dark sea. I read it sitting on the curb waiting for the school bus or lying on the twin bed in my bedroom, the neighbors just fifteen feet away—their whole lives separate from mine in our whimsically-named subdivision, equal but separate in a way that Kerouac and his cast of intrepid boddhisatvas would have misunderstood as thoroughly as I misunderstood them.

The second time I read Kerouac he left a deeper mark. I was nineteen and working in a door factory, going through the first period of serious reading in my adult life. It was a mass market paperback for a letterpress life. I woke up in that year or two at 4:30 AM to catch an early ride with my friend and his dad in the dark, enclosed back of his pest control truck; onto a bus on the westside of Jacksonville, Florida at 6:10 for a forty minute ride downtown, weaving through the suburban warrens of the New South city; off into the cold morning and through the mostly-abandoned streets on foot to the warehouse on Harper Street by 7:00. I remember one morning in particular when I read and walked at the same time, my eyes dodging back and forth from the page to the road as I weaved in and out of the outstretched ends of trailers backed up to loading docks in order to avoid traffic. I slipped the book into a back pocket as I climbed the stanchions of a flat railroad car stopped on the tracks. Up and over and down again, onward to work breathing steam in the riverine cold with the book in one hand and a time clock in the other. Hemmed in by necessity and bad decisions, however, I could only mimic Kerouac’s perambulations in my morning walks. I could not leave it all behind. I did not have the imagination.

Similar to my experiences reading Kerouac, narrator Reginald Morse’s life in Hotels of North America reveals its meanings through the places in which it unfolds. Morse is not a traditional narrator, or a reliable one. Instead, he reveals his story piece-by-piece, in memory, through hotel reviews on the fictional travel website Morse’s story is as tragic as it is germane to the first decades of our century. From brittle affluence in investment banking and a salacious love affair through pathetic ruin to a sort of rebirth through nomadic scamming and motivational speaking, Morse’s online screeds track the tensions underlining the end of the American century and mimic the twilight howls of the white American male. Like myself as a young man riding the bus and climbing over railroad cars, Morse is not in control of his own growth. The hotels in which he lives and the people and ghosts and regrets with which he shares them mark his experience in ways that Dean Moriarty and Carlo Marx would have scorned.

Morse is in control of his story, however, in ways that Sal, Dean, and Carlo—stuck behind the pale glow of the headlights and between the yellow and white lines of the highway—could only envy. Morse offers his reflections in a seemingly random order: jumping from year to year and place to place. This is a form of power for Morse, who writes like an erudite and professional reviewer instead of a motivated amateur. But the flaws in this construction rapidly make themselves known. Morse’s language plods at times like a walrus on the beach; his faux professionalism quickly gives way to bold explanations of scams and crude sex acts. Though his story unfolds through a slipshod collection of reflections rather than a linear narrative–like Jay Gatsby glancing into some of his rooms as his own story begins to spiral out of control—Morse is as compelled to recount his failures as his readers are to arrange them into some sort of order. These are the kinds of spaces and identities the Internet encourages us to create: grand palaces of erudition or experience, beauty, and worldliness that are nonetheless bound to ourselves and limited by our own weaknesses.

It is unfair to compare Rick Moody’s Hotels of North America to On The Road, but one cannot read Moody’s tragicomic portrait of postmodern isolation without indirectly reading Kerouac. Roads and margins, isolation and self-absorption run through the heart of both. But where Kerouac’s protagonist Sal Paradise is firmly in control of the narrative–a uniquely postwar optimism that could find the shining possibilities even In vagrant idol-worship–Moody’s protagonist Reginald Morse reflects an inverse experience. Presented with the ability to tell his own story through online reviews, he is instead locked into the trajectory of his own failure. Sal Paradise could turn the relentless order of the road into an order of the self; Reginald Morse uses the chaotic tools of the digital age to offer an indefinite and unreliable self-portrait. Both are powerfully evocative of their times. Sometimes Hotels of North America is underwhelming in its yearning for accessibility, yes; and George Saunders is undeniably the master of this kind of individualistic prose, indeed. Yet this is a small novel with large ambitions. It achieves almost all of them.

Buy Hotels of North America or find it in your local library here.