A Sunday Reading Appendix: Ignore it, It is Unnecessary and Superfluous, And Can Be Removed If It Becomes Malignant
Sunday reading is free for you, and free from the people whose labor puts it together. My original idea for it — several years ago, now — was that a lot of great people write a lot of great stuff, but that it doesn’t get read because everyone is too busy reading the New York Times or whatever. That was all. It’s a very banal observation, and there’s very little originality to the enterprise. Except that I thought to myself: what if I collected lots of links (like, lots of links) in one place, every Sunday, without fail? Occasional link roundups are great, but when they’re occasional, intermittent, they don’t become a thing. People don’t anticipate them. But what if I tried to use size and regularity to make it into a thing? What would that look like? If you have lots of links, and do it every Sunday, maybe lots of people would come to read it, and lots of people would link it, which means more people would read it, etc, with the result that lots of traffic would get sent to people who would appreciate it. #WIN
Thus, Sunday Reading now exists, over four years and counting, every Sunday, without fail. The trick is not the idea — which is not even much of an idea — but the application, the regularity, getting it done. And we have managed to get it done. I’m proud of that; we’ve never missed a single one. Because look, Sunday Reading isn’t anything all that special; it’s just a link dump. But years of doing it has made into a thing. So if you’ll indulge me, here is a messy bag of thoughts about that thing, and why it’s worth doing regularly.
If Sunday Reading has a value, it’s that it’s a mishmash of unruly thoughts and speech out of doors. I used to have a rule against linking to the New York Times or places like that, in fact; big and well-capitalized publications sometimes produce the best content, for obvious reasons: capital and organization and market-share makes them really good at producing “content.” A good editor is a gift from the gods, and being paid for your labor is what makes it possible to say alive, and writers like writing for publications that will get them read. The stuff that results from this process — professional writers producing professional writing — is often really great. And yet: the process of industrially producing writing as content will always organize and contextualize and frame and promote it along certain and distinct lines, for good or for ill. I don’t say this to condemn them for doing so — some of my best friends are editors at big, well-capitalized publications — but it’s an observation: some kinds of writing get made into content quite easily, and other kinds do not. The public sphere is organized by cleavages between that which will be contented and that which will not. Of course, the words “good” and “bad” are not the right words to use for that distinction; if public speech is worth passionately promoting and defending it, it’s because anything interesting is going to be impure and mixed, broken and particular. A lot of professional writing is atrocious, and a lot of un-compensated writing is superb, by whatever standard of quality you want to adopt (and there are too many to choose from). I have a private theory that all interesting writing is tragedy, and if it isn’t — if it is safe and familiar — it is farce. Interesting writing cuts, and breaks; content tends towards wrapping up and glossing over. We need both/and.
Sunday Reading has never had a statement of purpose or an organizing center, and has less of one now; all I do is receive and compile it these days, mainly because I burnt out on doing it myself, as every Sunday Reading alumnus eventually does. It’s not a lot of work, but it is work, and free labor eats you up, eventually; it’s sustainable only because it’s voluntary and distributed among self-selected volunteers who feel free to stop whenever they want. If someone wants to send me links, I include them, and for that reason — since we don’t pay anyone — there are no rules about how to do it. So what gets produced, then, hopefully, at the risk of romanticizing it, isn’t content, but something more like the week-residue of our collective thought (“us” in this case being “whoever decides to be us”). Intellectual cud that needs to be chewed? In place of ordered speech, of sentences that long for precision and concision, and of arguments that focus and close down and describe (that have been fashioned and produced and refined), Sunday Reading is just a messy bag filled with openings and surplus; you can’t click all the links, and you won’t; each one opens new doors and none of it adds up, but there it is, there’s some good stuff there, enjoy. It’s not an outside to the distributed content production machine that is the public sphere, but it is, in part, a reaction to it, and an attempt to think through its edges, and live in them, however temporarily.
My secret-ish ambition for Sunday Reading (too obvious to bother being secret about it, but also too banal to be worth talking about too much) was always that it would send readers to people who could use the attention, because the weirder and more obscure and more unruly the thought, the less likely one would be to find it through conventional means. Ideally, Sunday Reading links to people that are happy to have Sunday Reading link to them. Legacy publications don’t need to care very much, but unruly writers appreciate it, sometimes very much, especially writers for whom being read is their primary payment. Writers write to be read: they should be paid in money, of course, but payment is necessary without being remotely sufficient, and some kinds of writers will never be paid for writing the things they need to write. For those kinds of writers, sometimes, the only thing you can do to support them is read them, and pass them along. You can be a part of their community, not by paying them, but by doing your chores: sharing, linking, appreciating, commenting, cleaning up.
Love will never produce content, in short, but it can help to foster community. Because community is disordered, unruly; identification across and through difference, structured by proximity and lubricated by xenophilias that we don’t always understand (and probably shouldn’t try to). Community is filled with discontent, because if everyone agrees and if everyone is the same, then you don’t need the modes of identification that help us remember to love each other anyway. Communities don’t produce a lot of value. Indeed, if “neoliberalism” is a word that means anything (anything other than “what the kids are calling capitalism nowadays”), it’s a hatred of community, a desire to turn love and desire into content, branded and packaged and commodified. Without these frames, there is no content. But we have love for so many things that these frames don’t contain. And it’s worth thinking about how to put that love into practice. Branded content and publications which have a clear sense of mission and purpose are great, just like Starbucks coffee is great. I consume it, gladly, and there’s no virtue in pretending otherwise. But I love a cup of coffee made by hand, by a friend; I love to make coffee for friends.
(At some point, though, somebody has to grow or buy the beans and grind them. The average value of total social labor will find its way into the most intimate occasions. Though it’s nice to pretend otherwise, sometimes. And that’s why, here, at the end of an essay which I’ll allow myself to pretend I didn’t write for this reason, safely buried in a long parenthetical that hides the fact that I’ve been leading up to this, obviously, is my appeal for you to send The New Inquiry some money for doing this. Subscribe here. Not because you need to — everything published by TNI will eventually be free online at some point, so you are never buying a commodity that is anything but temporarily scarce — but because the TNI brain-trust has promised me to start paying for Sunday Reading, and they will need money to do it.
Now, as I said, Sunday Reading has always been free and has always been put together for free, and that won’t change. I am not going to get paid for it, nor will any of the contributors. But we’ve discussed taking some money from TNI and putting it towards some kind of mutually agreed cause (which would rotate): a starving artist, a bail fund, an advocacy organization, a kickstarter. It’s unlikely to be ever be very much money, but it will be a gesture, and gestures are something when they’re better than nothing. But, even though Ayesha immediately agreed when I emailed her and said “hey, TNI should actually not be getting the labor of Sunday Reading for free, because of ethics and whatever,” the practical realities of having money are that TNI basically doesn’t have any money. This has always been the case; it’s a labor of love, even if we aspire to be paid for doing this lovely work. But as TNI slouches towards something like self-sufficiency, having control over our own payment system — as will now be the case — means it’s possible to dream big: soon, TNI will double the pittance that we currently pay writers, and with your help and the non-rising of the creeks, Sunday Reading will pay… somebody we love. You can subscribe here, if you want, and we’ll still love you if you don’t.)