The Point Podcast

Selected Essays | Bonus Episode with Jon Baskin and Rachel Wiseman

March 21, 2024 The Point Magazine Season 2 Episode 5
Selected Essays | Bonus Episode with Jon Baskin and Rachel Wiseman
The Point Podcast
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The Point Podcast
Selected Essays | Bonus Episode with Jon Baskin and Rachel Wiseman
Mar 21, 2024 Season 2 Episode 5
The Point Magazine

On this bonus episode of Selected Essays, Jess and Zach talk to Point editors, Jon Baskin and Rachel Wiseman about two of their favorite essays—Charles Comey's “Against Honeymoons,” and Moeko Fujii’s “Let Them Misunderstand”—and what makes them quintessential Point pieces.

Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

On this bonus episode of Selected Essays, Jess and Zach talk to Point editors, Jon Baskin and Rachel Wiseman about two of their favorite essays—Charles Comey's “Against Honeymoons,” and Moeko Fujii’s “Let Them Misunderstand”—and what makes them quintessential Point pieces.

Jessica Swoboda  00:05

Hey everyone. Welcome to selected essays, a podcast series from The Point magazine about essays you should read, but probably haven't. Each episode we'll be talking with writers about an essay that's influenced one of their own. My name is Jess Swoboda, and I'm here with my co-host Zach Fine.


Zach Fine  00:23

We're excited to have a bonus episode this week with two editors of The Point, Jon Baskin and Rachel Wiseman. Jess and I asked Jon and Rachel if they would each pick one of their favorite essays from the magazine's archive, and talk to us about not only what makes them great essays, but in particular great Point essays--about how they embody the spirit of the magazine in some crucial way. Jon selected Charles Comey's "Against Honeymoons," which was published in 2015 and later selected for the 2016 series of Best American Essays. And Rachel chose Moeko Fujii’s 2020 essay, “Let Them Misunderstand”-- about the Japanese theater director Yukio Ninagawa and his adaptations of Shakespeare, which leads Moeko to reflect on the experience of living between cultures. Jon is one of the founding editors of The Point, and has been with the magazine since it was started in 2008. And Rachel has been on staff for almost a decade and was actually The Point's first official employee. In June, Rachel and our colleague, Anastasia Berg, who's also an editor at the magazine, have a book coming out called What Are Children For? On Ambivalence and Choice. We'll include a link in the show notes, and hope you'll consider pre ordering a copy.


Jessica Swoboda  01:34

We hope you'll enjoy this episode and subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. If you have questions, comments, or anything else, send an email to We'd love to hear from you. And also be sure to subscribe to The Point, the magazine that brings you content like this podcast. You can find a 50% off discount code exclusive to listeners in the episode notes. Well, Rachel and Jon, thank you so much for joining us on this special episode of Selected Essays.


Jon Baskin  02:14

Thanks for having us. We're excited to be. I've heard really good things about this podcast.


Rachel Wiseman  02:19

Good to be here. I'm a big fan.


Jessica Swoboda  02:23

So Jonn, we thought we would start with you. And so you chose Charles Comey's "Against Honeymoons." Can you say about a bit about what this essay is about and why you chose it to discuss today?


Jon Baskin  02:34

So the essay is about the author's honeymoon most straightforwardly, it's a narrative about him going on his honeymoon and what he found difficult or challenging or unsatisfying about the experience. And he uses that personal experience as a way or as he's trying to think through what was unsatisfying about his own honeymoon, he thinks more generally about the honeymoon, and sort of its place in our lives today. And what its function is and whether it has any function anymore. And he does this thing that I think is one of the things I find interesting, you know, in a way, he's examining a sort of ritual that we do today. And he's asking, Are we doing it mindfully? Like, does it still make sense to do it? And not in a sort of like, quick reaction way of just it's a convention, we shouldn't follow conventions, because he actually contrasts it with marriage, which he concludes, yeah, marriage doesn't have the same function. It always had a wedding. He means but it still has some function. But there's a question of whether the honeymoon has any function at all. And that's part of what what he's what he's trying to raise in the essay.


Jessica Swoboda  03:45

Is there a particular passage you can read for us that you like? 


Jon Baskin  03:49

Yeah, so I'll read. I mean, the piece toggles as, as my description might have suggested, between his personal experience and some more general thoughts about the history of the honeymoon and its place in society today. But I wanted to read a part from the personal experience, because I think in some way, that's what's most distinctive about the essay is the voice and the way he sort of writes and the way the form of the essay reflects the kind of self consciousness and spiraling spectatorial condition that he's in on his on his honeymoon. So this is their, their end of the honeymoon. This is from the middle of the essay that the first two days they've gotten to Hawaii, it's rained, and then the rain is starting to abate on the third day. So he writes, "On the third day, my wife and I sort of decided to just carry on like it wasn't raining. We walked from the hotel up onto a bluff. From here we could see a solitary Monk Seal somersaulting in a pool among the wave lap rocks below. We were about to head back. We were getting soaked when we noticed a path or more like a web like network of pads, through the sandy pine group. robes grew along the Whitfield clef. We wandered through these until eventually they converge on a trail that took us through the old burial ground of the kings of the island. We got lucky in the rain light into a drizzle. Looking out over the ocean, the clouds were lumpy, but on punctured, untouched low sheet below which even lower, closer clouds were marauding. Then the sheet was pulled back in the sun shone. That's the moment when I really remember it taking over the seemingly inexplicable anxiety about my trip. I remember that up there with a king's VISTA, the grey Pacific, something in me It turned the wrong way. I was witnessing beauty, I knew that the beauty was just making me watch the turning clouds worried about losing our pocket of good weather. This was the quiet beginning of my real bothered pneus. Regarding experiences, we locked walked along the cliff until it dropped down to Room to a remote beach fog open and close the landscape to us. My sense is that a lot of people actually have a hard time traveling for leisure. There are some people of course, who fail to really get away because they can't leave something behind. The classic image would be the honeymoon or apologizing as she ducks into a room to take another call from work. When she isn't on the phone. You can catch her staring into space. And just half the next paragraph. Solutions to being elsewhere our it seems to me pretty straightforward, under most circumstances, shut off the phone, then time is on your side. My distraction, by contrast, was a bit more insidious. It seemed to feed on the objectively good experience of the trip itself. It wasn't that I couldn't see my perfect macadamia crusted mahi mahi because my thoughts were elsewhere to speak truthfully, I could see my mahi mahi very clearly. But it was like I aimed my fork at the fish but kept accidentally skewering something else, my future reminiscence of it." 


Jessica Swoboda  06:57

Now, did you did anything in that passage resonate with you and your own feelings about honeymoon? Or did this essay change your perception of them at all?


Jon Baskin  07:06

Well, there's a basic point that I think a lot of us can identify with about. Well, there are two I guess two basic points I think a lot of us can identify with about honeymoons. One is that the traditional function of the honeymoon as he points out, which was to allow a couple to finally be alone, and of course consummate their relationship sexually is completely ridiculous today, as he says most people plan their honeymoons a lot around their kitchen table alone at home, where they've lived together for several months. Now. I mean, there are obviously exceptions to this and certain religious communities, also on the show Married at First Sight if you've ever seen it, they go on their honeymoon immediately after meeting each other as the wedding 


Rachel Wiseman  07:45

An important modern exception!


Jon Baskin  07:47

Yes, in many ways this is this is they are being faithful to the true, more faithful to the purpose of the honeymoon. But so there becomes this question. There's this question in your back of the mind about what is the honeymoon? By that time, you've probably already taken many trips with your with your beloved, you've you've been alone with her. There's probably not the first time you've had sex. But then it's sort of that question is related to the to the experiential trouble he has on the honeymoon, which is the thing of thinking, Yes, but there's something about this that supposed to be particularly memorable. And somehow this thought in his head that he's supposed to have these memories from the honeymoon. And it's supposed to be special in some way. This is a big part of what creates the kind of spiraling self consciousness that I think he that I think he writes so well throughout the piece, the way that you sort of get the way of the mind sort of folding back on itself, each experience is already pre digested that line, you know, it was like a my fork at the fish but kept accidentally skewering something else, my future reminiscence of it. I think we often talked about this today in terms of always wanting to take pictures or post things on social media. That's even sometimes a more, you know, hyper form of it. But I think that he's really getting into here this this is a little bit sort of on the edge. I don't think Charles probably uses social media. But I think the way that that even sort of structured into the form of the honeymoon, is this kind of already thinking about how you're going to remember it while you're going through it and how this can kind of ruin the experience or it does for a self conscious person like him. It's a funny note about this essay, by the way that it was chosen for Best American Essays that year by Jonathan Franzen, who I feel you can almost imagine writing this essay about himself or having similar sentiments, you kind of feel there's no way Franzen enjoys traveling, you know. So, birthing center sensibility.


Rachel Wiseman  09:51

Yeah, I mean, one thing is that this essay was part of the travel symposium and I remember I remember when I read it, thinking, and I hadn't been on a honeymoon yet, but I was like, isn't this true of like every trip like that we're kind of living it in retrospect in the moment and that there is something sort of perverse about that. But I think, yeah, the honeymoon as a, as an institution, I think he really captures the way that it like doesn't make sense.


Jessica Swoboda  10:23

Yeah. Or just wondering if you're having enough fun on your trip, or if you're doing what you should you're supposed to be doing or expected to be doing, you know, and I think like the inexplicable anxiety kind of captures that as well. Yeah.


Zach Fine  10:36

So we want to come back to Comey's essay in a minute, but for now, can we turn to the other essay, Rachel, the one that you've chosen, which is Moeko Fujii’s essay “Let Them Misunderstand: Seeing Shakespeare with Ninagawa”, which was published in the magazine in 2020. Can you tell us a little bit about the essay and why you chose it?


Rachel Wiseman  10:55

Yeah. So this piece is a retrospective of the work of the Japanese director Yukio Ninagawa, who was famous for his translations of Shakespeare into Japanese and doing Japanese productions of traditional Shakespeare plays. And it came to us as and that's kind of the context of the essay came to us as a much more kind of traditional review of his work. But what the essay ended up being is this much more comprehensive, personal look at the act of translation, and the experience of living between two cultures, written by Moeko who grew up in Japan as a returnee, someone who kind of who had lived in an English speaking country and then went back to Japan. And it's about her investment in Ninagawa's was translations of Shakespeare and what it is about his work that somehow unlocked a kind of problem, or unlocked a sort of solution to a problem that she was having about how to sort of exist between these two cultures.


Zach Fine  12:08

And can you can you tell us a little bit more about that transition editorially, from going to from the review to the more personal dimension of the essay, was that something that kind of came out organically in email exchanges from Moeko, or was that direction that you proposed in the editorial process? 


Rachel Wiseman  12:23

Yeah, well, so it started out actually as an essay that she had written for the New Yorker. And it ended up due to some kind of like, editorial calendar issues, no longer feeling timely. But what the original version was very much a review of that, like final production of Macbeth, that Ninogawa had done, and it was at the Lincoln Center. And she attended that and then went back to Japan and did this much more kind of traditional reported cultural criticism keys where she was talking to some people who had worked with an ungawa, his producer, other sort of scholars of Shakespeare translation in Japan. And it felt much more kind of, yeah, straightforward. But there were there was this line in the original essay that I remember really like locking into, that, like, gave me the sense that it was like, not just this sort of exploration of this one figures work or the sort of challenges of translating Shakespeare into Japanese, but that it actually had a very personal valence for Moeko. And it was this line that actually doesn't appear in the final piece. That was to be a player in in a God was World meant you straddled the fine line between tapping into a tradition and becoming a slave to it, and meant that you played many parts, but not too much of one. And there was something that like when I was reading it, I just got this like little tingle. And I was I remember thinking, there has to be something more here this like, seems like this line that betrays this real investment in his work. I got the sense that like she had been there too, this feeling that she was playing multiple parts, but not too much of one. And so, so yeah, so I put that to her. I was like, Would you be open to trying to like, reflect on this a little bit more personally, and I think this and she totally went for it. But I think that speaks to what makes it such a Point-like essay because it's not just kind of generating kind of criticism from afar, someone from the top down telling you why you should care about someone, it's internal. And you get to sort of go on this journey with her as she's like rediscovering her investment in this person, why she cares about his work, why it matters to her.


Zach Fine  14:59

I love that that line that's been omitted now is a kind of silent core around which the piece was built and that we don't actually read that in the final piece. But it's there in the kind of earlier drafts. It's kind of great. Can we actually look at a passage? Is there is there any one in particular that stands out for you that made it into the final draft?


Rachel Wiseman  15:15

Yeah. So this is a part of the essay and the essay has started, I'll back up a little bit. The essay has these two interlocking narratives, the one is, is about Ninagawa and his personal history, how he came to be this sort of celebrated figure in Japanese theatre, how he became, you know, the preeminent translator of Shakespeare for the Japanese public. And then there's this other personal thread. That's about her experience, Moeko's experience as a returnee and also this sort of love story that she had with another returnee, and how they together we're sort of trying to hash out how to how to go about this kind of translation and how to live in the gaps between those cultures that they were a part of. So this is a this is a part of the essay toward the beginning, where she is watching that production of Macbeth at Lincoln Center, and you get to sort of see her opening up to the work. So it it starts this way. "The play started when two old crones hobbled on stage and opened the screens of a gigantic Buddhist altar, establishing themselves as fellow spectators to the tragedy. They cleaned and wept and shielded their faces as the weird sisters twisted in with their tongues blue shilling their prophecies and kabuki ensemble. I'd only seen this production online in a grainy video that wouldn't expand bigger than the length of my forefinger. The first time I saw it was as a college sophomore on a post-Said high. I scoffed thinking the whole deal ridiculous. Shakespeare and kimonos please, weren't we over sanctifying Shakespeare already, and my god, the hushed reverence about the Japaneseness of it all. I was anti reverence at the time. I leaned forward in my seat looking at the waving cherry blossom trees. I still was. Lady Macbeth took the stage. I sat back. I knew what was coming. She was going to play a Schubert Sonata on her cello. What I didn't expect was the irritated violence with which she flicked her sleeves back to play the odd angle at which she had to twist her head so that her head piece wouldn't hit the scroll. It wasn't easy, her body, said to play cello in a kimono. A deliberate moment of difficulty was introduced to the supposed sleek union of East and West, a slight fizzle, and in congruence. It moved me. Ninagawa had made her practices motion again and again, demanding it look exactly like this. Not easy. Ninagawa would have hated being called my favorite self-Orientalist. You would have thrown an ashtray at me if this stuff of legends is true. He did not brook critiques that hinted at his dabbling in the Japaneseque. Ninagawa's audience, his only audience, he maintained, was the Japanese. His aim to produce a Shakespeare play that could be understood by ordinary people. He said this with an air of finality as if slamming a door shut. But I always wanted to jam a foot in before he did. I needed definitions for ordinary and Japanese, his full throated definitions, though he died before giving them because seeing his art had taught generations to stretch the bounds of those two words beyond imagining. No, here's a more honest, selfish reason than that. I needed to know whether he was speaking to people who found them both comforting and troubling. I needed to know whether he was speaking to people like me.


Jessica Swoboda  19:08

There's a lot going on in that passage. We have this idea of it being difficult to play the cello in a kimono, but also showing that the union of East and West is harder than people will make it out to be, not as seamless as one might assume. And then we have too like this idea of the nonverbal being able to communicate more than the verbal with the gestures that are happening on stage in terms of playing the cello. And I'm just wondering what this essay is suggesting about that type of communication, in contrast to language itself, because by the end, I really think that we're getting to this whole idea of like the nonverbal being a key as what can unite us despite language differences, despite this, these kind of irreparable differences and I didn't know if you had a thought thought on that in relation to this essay?


Rachel Wiseman  20:04

Yeah, well, so one of the things that I really like about the piece and that I think makes it quite kind of Point-like, like I said, is that like, as a sort of cultural commentary, it's like working from within the subjectivity of like the person who's writing. You get a sense of of Moeko sort of discovering, and rediscovering, Ninagawa through this performance and through kind of reading his biography and what have you. And one of the things she talks about is how Ninagawa himself was like a big fan of these grand gestures. And so even though the translation of Shakespeare itself was often quite traditional, and like a strict kind of translation, from Elizabethan English, his way of translating it for Japanese audiences, and making it something that ordinary Japanese viewers could understand was by using these like, big sort of, like, literal metaphors. So in like, you know, Richard the Third, when he says, "My kingdom for a horse," there would be a big horse that would fall literally on the stage. And, and I think there's a sense in which, like, the, Ninagawa I think, helped Malenko in this essay sort of come to appreciate the ways in which like you don't always have to stretch yourself and contort yourself to translate word for word. That like, sometimes you can, as the title of the essay says, let them misunderstand and then it doesn't have to be this kind of like deep existential crisis somehow. But that these, like in congruences can actually be a way of like making peace with like those conflicts.


Zach Fine  21:59

Rachel, you were saying a little bit about why Moeko's essay is a Point essay, and I'm wondering if we can go back to Jon and talk about why "Against Honeymoons" is a Point essay. What about its DNA makes it kind of suited to the Point as opposed to another literary magazine?


Jon Baskin  22:15

Yeah. So there are a few things. I mean, I think the first is something I already mentioned about, you know, the way it it can it combines a personal meditation and reflection, and one's own experience with a historical and somewhat of a philosophical discussion about the meaning of honeymoons, what their development has been, what what role they're supposed to play for us. So what role they're supposed to play in a certain kind of life. You know, and that's, I think, the best the best Point essays have always done that. We sort of we sort of used it when we talked about when we were first starting the magazine, we liked this image of someone comes upon a problem in their life, whether it's about dating, or what they should eat, or who they should vote for, or where they should travel to. And they realized they're not able to solve it just with their own resources, they have to read something or they have to look out into the world and think about it in a way that goes outside of their head. But then once that process is over, they have to, they return to themselves. And they return to the question with some kind of new thought that is that is developed in the course of their of their thinking. The other thing that's maybe not true of every Point essay, certainly but that I think is something that I always like, aspire for was point essays. I think Charlie's essay is just very ambitious on a stylistic level. And it's very distinctive. There really is a voice there that you just wouldn't find in many magazines. I mean, I happen to know Charlie wrote his dissertation, partly on Thoreau, and Emerson and the transcendentalists, and certainly one of the inspirations for The Point was the philosophical essay, filtered in its American form, you know, going back to Montaigne, but filtered in its American form through Emerson, and then down through Baldwin and Sontag, and these kinds of writers that have these sort of inimitable voices and ways of relating their experience where the essay is not just sort of the sum of its arguments, but there's a there's a sense that you're that you're communicating with a sensibility, and a style that really is completely distinctive, and a kind of a self, you know, and I think that Charlie at his best, there really is this sense that every sentence in some way, is an essay, every sentence is speaking, you know, is speaking to that condition that the whole essay is about. And I that's something I associate with Thoreau and Emerson and some of the best works in the history of the essay that that kind of quality.  Yeah, Jon, you use words there, like meditation and reflection and discussion and returning to questions with new thoughts and being syas stylistically ambitious. And so I'm wondering if Point essays then need an argument, or is it more about these things that you've suggested in in place of an argument, I guess it would somewhat I guess I'd somewhat reject the dichotomy in the sense that I think that when when someone is really thinking on a page, there are arguments being made, they're putting claims forward, there is a sensibility to contend with, you know, he's saying, we feel this way and you think, do I, you know, and he's, and he's not afraid to sort of make a claim. And you might disagree with that. He's saying, This is how honeymoons are, and you're thinking, are they? But, you know, I think mostPoint essays do also have more explicit arguments. But I guess I feel that there is this other element of of the best essays where the argument is sort of this sort of embedded in every sentence, if you know, what it you know, in a way. And I think that, you know, a distinction between a Point essay and like, there is a distinction between a Point essay and something that's more commonly called a memoir, where someone is writing about their personal experience, these can be incredibly, you know, can also be very stylistically interesting and bring you into contact with a sensibility that I guess a memoir, in a way, I guess, I would say one thing that distinguishes that is, it's not necessarily making those kinds of claims, like you can read a memoir, and think this is a really good relation of this person's experience. It's not my experience, but that doesn't really matter. I think with a Point essay, there is at least an impulse within the essay, even when it's quite personal, to to there is an impulse toward an argument, or toward a set of claims that the reader should feel they need to contend with as they're reading it.


Rachel Wiseman  26:29

Yeah, there's like this immediacy to it, but that immediacy is always directed toward kind of moving through a problem. Rather than sort of like being pure experience. And I think that's actually something that you get at and it's sort of like an ethos of the essay "Against honeymoons," because one of the things he's sort of bulking out or chafing against about being on this honeymoon is a sense that it forces you almost performatively to like, live it from a remove, because you're like trying to be present in the moment. And yet, the only way to be present is to think about it as like something that you'll like look back on and show pictures of to your grandkids and stuff like that. Whereas like he's trying to sort of think about another another way of experiencing the world, which would be to like, live. But I also think that that's something that I see in the Ninagawa piece that Moeko wrote to in that, like her encounter with this work of art. It's not like in isolation. It's not something that, you know, it's constantly sort of, and completely imbricated with these other questions that she's wrestling with. And so, yeah, so I think that's, you know, even though they're quite different essays, and in their formulation, and in the way that they're written, I think they both have, in some sense a structure of someone going through an experience that presents them with a kind of problem, and then trying to kind of work backwards from that.


Zach Fine  28:11

As Jess and I were talking before the episode, we were kind of thinking about the early history of the magazine, and how it's evolved over the years. And one thing that I was thinking about was an essay that I think Mark Greiff wrote and Chronicle of Higher Ed a number of years ago, where he talks about the early years of n plus one, and receiving essays from academics, oftentimes, that were very boring, that they would write essays that were in their minds kind of dumbing down some kind of academic conceit they had. And when they went to go write for a larger public, it was a kind of diminished version of what they were doing in academia. And I'm curious about at least with you, Jon, your early years, the magazine, and how your expectations of The Point kind of style essay has changed over the years about whether you had a certain expectation going in for certain kinds of essays. And then in early years, realized that they weren't really working and then had to kind of adjust the focus of the kind of the DNA of the magazine at all. Or if you've really held to this idea of the kind of American tradition of the Emersonian essay, kind of all the way through or if there's been some shift. 


Jon Baskin  29:12

Yeah, I mean, I guess, I think we've held I mean, I think we've held it in a way. I mean, I definitely knew what Greif was talking about that in that article. And I knew it as a prop. And it was certainly something we ran into early on with, with with working with so many academics, which we did, especially early on in the magazine, but we continue to do, I think, you know, the predominant model for an academic writing for the public at that time, and still, to some extent is, is that kind of dumbing down, I'm explaining something to you. And as Greif said, and I'm also going to tell a bunch of goofy jokes that I think normal people like but actually aren't very funny. You know, there's a sort of there's a sort of disrespect for the audience built in. As if I've already done this thinking somewhere else. This thinking is taking place in some other location, I've come to my conclusions. And now I'm going to, maybe I've written about them for an academic audience. And now I'm going to present them in a simplified form to, to, to the public. And, you know, Greiff, I think n plus one was part of a sort of movement in the early 2000s of new journals that were at this sort of intersection between academia and the public. And we're trying to rethink this, this relationship, they did not want to do popular philosophy, or, for that matter, popular literary studies or popular sociology, they wanted to create a space where a public and the thinker could would think together, and where the where people who may be academics would actually be doing some of their most serious thinking in these articles that they were writing. So that was definitely as editors, I mean, sometimes I think it's changed to some extent, we started The Point in 2009. At that time, n plus one was around new inquiry, it just started, there were a couple of these burgeoning magazines. You know, 15 years later, they're there. This space, I think, has grown. I don't know if you guys agree with that. But it feels to me like there are a lot more graduate students, for instance, who start who are aware of these kinds of essays and write them for all kinds of magazines now, but at the time, yeah, it was still rare. And so So, so there was bringing along a lot of the time helping academics out of that those habits, sometimes they got angry, sometimes they were happy when we when we helped them do that, to get to a place where they saw that what they were doing was not sort of like an afterthought to their serious thinking. But that this was itself its own form of serious thinking these kinds of essays. Now, I mean, that doesn't mean that we helped everyone become an Emersonian essayist. Most academics, and most people for that matter, are simply not capable of writing that kind of essay. And so, you know, as an editor, when you do find people with these kinds of really distinctive voices, which, you know, we had some of in the early years, certainly not every article, that's something that's very exciting. And it makes it worth quite a bit of struggle, which sometimes can happen. You know, this against honeymoons essay, I think initially came in at 14,000 words. And I remember it was written in four different colors for the parts that Charlie was sure about the parts, he thought were good, the parts, he really wasn't sure about the parts he was pretty sure should be cut, but he wasn't able to decide himself. So he wanted to leave it to us.


Zach Fine  32:35

That's amazing. That's I had no idea that's really great. 


Jessica Swoboda  32:39

14,000 words.


Jon Baskin  32:39

Jonny Thakkar actually was that was the main editor on this, but both of us I've been going through it over and over again and telling him like, yes, you can get rid of this, you know, here's, you know, and rearranging it a little bit to be a little bit more polemical, so that it had that magazine, you know, "Against Honeymoons," which helped with getting it out there, as opposed to just like, here's a meditation about my honeymoon. And many of the things I think about honey moods, but the voice, you know, Charlie's voice is so distinctive, and so unusual and so thoughtful. And this was something that it was always a pleasure actually to work on essays like this. Obviously, not every academic has this kind of voice hiding within their academic writing. But I think I think yeah, in some ways, like I said it or like I suggested, it's almost even only gotten easier to publish essays by academics and journalists who sort of understand this genre of trying to think something through on the page or a public because there just is a lot more of that kind of writing today.


Jessica Swoboda  33:40

You both been talking a lot about what makes the Point essay a Point essay and what you look for as both editor as editors and as readers. But are there some common misconceptions of Point essays out there that get under your skin and make you think, no, that's not what we're doing? Why do people think this about our essays?


Rachel Wiseman  34:00

Like with most misconceptions, there's like always a kernel of truth, right? Like, I think the like, one misconception is if it's like about some, like Plato, or some dead guy, like, dead thinker, like and I'm going to try to, like talk about that in relation to something in my life, like, therefore, it's interesting, and I think sometimes that's very true. And sometimes it just doesn't necessarily work in some ways like the, "Let Them Misunderstand," in some ways, like it has this very kind of classics, dare I say, nearly stereotypical Point structure of like it being about Shakespeare, and how this how this writer is relating to Shakespeare through this other producer, but or director rather. But I think, you know, one of the things that a good Point essay really does is it it it's not just a not just about of the great thinkers and writers of the past the great books, even though many of our essays are about that, but it actually like shows how these are actual living texts and how they speak to the things that we're going through right now, how they speak to us across time, and that these aren't just like, kind of static objects to like revere from, you know, like, a respectful distance, but that they kind of are constantly tunneling their way into into the way that we're thinking about things that we're experiencing right now. And that they have something to say to us, you know, that they still speak to us in important ways. So that's one like sort of stereotype that I think, like does have some basis in truth, but you can do it that you can do it while and you can do it poorly.


Zach Fine  35:48

Do you need to correct the record on anything, Jon, any any misconceptions about Point essays?


Jon Baskin  35:53

No, I think I mean, I've actually been thinking about it. I mean, I don't know it's not something I it's not that this is something where something's like top of mind that I see a lot as a misconception. I mean, you know, I think in general, depending on the audience we're talking to, there's some people that still see us as an academic journal. I mean, it depends what your what your normal experiences, but there are people that open the magazine and see certain names and certain philosophical concepts, or whatever. And they immediately think, Oh, this is an academic journal, or this is a place where people go to sort of talk about very academic matters. And, you know, I think often that's, maybe comes from a more glancing experience with the magazine. But I hope that I hope that that's not, that's not how it occurs to most people. And like Rachel said, there is this sense that you have been, we will sometimes get pitches that will be like, I just want to reappraise like x thinker, in light of some new development and literary studies or whatever. And it's just, you know, that kind of thing, even if it's written in a more in a more, even if it's written in a non jargony way or something, it's not really what we do, because ultimately, its direction is toward the academy, is towards toward an academic debate. And while we will, you know, we will occasionally weigh in on these kinds of things, the most of our most of our essays, and the sort of direction I always want the magazine to go is out toward life. And the essay should in some way, show why this academic debate might be relevant to someone who is not an academic, and is not actually already invested in this than that. It could be something we'd be interested in. But but you know, I think that, because we come out of academia. And obviously, we all have lots of friends and people who work in academia, there's still sometimes the misconception that the magazine is more academic than that. I think it is. 


Rachel Wiseman  37:43

Yeah, but the magazine, I mean, Jon, you can maybe speak to this a little bit, there was this. There were kind of two different dissatisfactions that were at the core of the founding of the magazine. One had to do with the way that like academic writing was, and another had to do with the way that kind of mainstream magazine writing was at the time. Do you want to speak a little bit about that? 


Jon Baskin  38:08

Yeah, well, just I mean, yeah, we felt we felt there was there was there was the academic writing that took ideas very seriously, but was not really for a public at all was for very small audiences. And, you know, in academic journals, and often never got to the point of why this topic was important in the first place. And then there was there was the mainstream magazine writing, which sort of was very accessible, often the kind of thing you find in the New Yorker, the New York Review of Books, but was, did not take ideas seriously. In the sense, we wanted to take them seriously, which didn't mean academically, but not seriously, in the sense that these ideas are really what you decide about a lot of ideas determines how you live. And that, you know, I think I use the phrase intellectual tourism a lot to describe the kind of writing you would find in the New Yorker where there'd be a kind of tour of different ideas. Here's this idea, here's that idea. Aren't these all neat? Now we can go to bed knowing about these ideas. And but there was no sense that sort of how you thought about these things would would actually change your life. And so those were the two things that those were sort of the twin pillars that we were trying to put the Point between.


Rachel Wiseman  39:19

Yeah, nd I think like, you know, when I like think back to the transformation that Moeko's essay underwent, part of it is that it started out relying on this like, model of a magazine writing that, you know, dependent on other experts and these like scenes of like going and talking to different people about what they thought about this thinker when. And I see that sometimes, especially with young writers is like, they want to have other people. Other people's quotes stand in for them just saying what they really think or why it matters to them. And so I think a good Point essay is able to one thing I'm learning, I have learned over the time that I've now almost 10 years that I've worked at the magazine, is that it shouldn't be like some kind of erudite, academic, like, condescending to a reader, nor should it be some complete, the voice of the writer should not be someone who doesn't really have any direct skin in the game, either. Like you want them to also be willing to, like make a claim and say where they stand.


Zach Fine  40:34

Jon and Rachel, you guys are both writers and editors. And one of the things that we were thinking about when we started this podcast was about what essays could do, how they could inspire people to write, to think, to live different lives. And I'm curious for both of you, if you have a defining moment, or kind of an early encounter with an essay, whether as a grad student or even younger, that got you interested in writing and editing essays in the first place? 


Rachel Wiseman  41:00

Yeah, I mean, I think I have a few, a few memories. The thing that really got me interested in editing was in college, I was part of this alt weekly on campus at UChicago. And so it wasn't necessarily one single essay, but it was this community of students that got together and did cultural criticism together and edited one another's work and would pass along, you know, Didion's essays on San Francisco, and, you know, Frank Sinatra has a cold, and, you know, John Jeremiah Solomon's essays on music, and we would read them together and kind of dissect them, and try to kind of see how they worked. And so it was through doing that, with my friends, basically, and editing one another that I started to get interested in editing, you know, in a more serious way. But I've always loved magazines. I mean, I grew up in a small town in Maine, where there was one Borders bookstore, and I would go there and steal all the magazines and read them in the coffee shop. And that was like my portal to another world.


Zach Fine  42:31

Wow, Borders, RIP.


Jon Baskin  42:34

So I would say actually keeping on the on the on the theme of RIP, I would say the really the first serious essays I ever read all of them were in Sports Illustrated and were often there was this writer named Gary Smith, who used to write these amazing profiles of boxers and football players and, and that were about much more than sports. They were, they were about everything. But But I, you know, for me, the entry point was always sports. And for a long time, I thought I wanted to be a sports writer, I couldn't imagine anything else there was to be actually once I realized I wasn't going to be a professional athlete. And so, so I think, I think sports was really my way into magazines and into essays. But I think there was sort of a second, a second stage for me, you know, when when n plus one did start, and I began reading the kinds of essays they were publishing, you know, you know, essays by Keith Gessen and Elif Batuman and Wesley Yang and the early in the early issues, these huge ambitious essays that were not only about social and political phenomena, but often made philosophical claims. In fact, I remember Mark Greif had this essay called "The Concept of Experience," which was itself a kind of reach back to Emerson's essay "Experience" and got me to go back and read that. And it sort of, I think that that was definitely that experience that you could still do this in in 2005 at the time, you could still write this kind of essay that had this kind of philosophical ambition, and style and seriousness, it wasn't just something that like we'd left behind in the 1960s and earlier, that you could still do this and that there was an audience for it. That was really exciting to me at that time. And it felt like a form that was, for whatever reason, at that moment. I mean, I could have some theories, but capturing the kind of the kind of Zeitgeist and experience of people at that time. And I think it's interesting that actually, if you think about between, like 2005 and say, 2020, I think fiction in America was actually relatively moribund compared to the genre of the essay. The essay was really where a lot of the most exciting writers found ways to express themselves and found an audience to connect with while they were doing it. And so I think that, you know, yeah, I think I was really shaped by that and had it in mind when when we started The Point. And then of course, I've learned a lot more about the essay through through editing the point, but but I think that was that was definitely a formative experience for me seeing seeing what they were doing with with n plus one. 


Rachel Wiseman  45:14

I'll also say that what n plus one was to Jon, The Point was to me as a college student, cuz I was at U Chicago as an undergrad when they started the magazine. And when I was on that newspaper, I was the alt-weekly that I was telling you about. I was a freshman, and I was doing layout for them and there was a little feature about this new journal started by three graduate students in the Committee on Social Thought that, you know, I remember reading and I found very surprising, I didn't know that something like that could exist in Chicago. And, and I read it all through college.


Jessica Swoboda  45:56

So, obviously, there's a lot of changes happening in media and in literary studies and everywhere right now. And what do you see as The Point's role in the coming years, with, despite all of these changes?


Jon Baskin  46:08

It's a tough question, Jess. You know, we discuss this all the time. I know, I know. You know, I think that one thing, one thing, about the point is the mission of the magazine, there's a certain backbone of the magazine that never changes, you know, and I think we've, we've, there's a DNA of the magazine that's really like, set, and that's something we've talked about a lot, I think, in this conversation, the idea that, you know, the essay is a form through which one can examine one's own life, in conversation with philosophy and literature. And, and that this is, you know, this is a perennial thing that people should neither be attracted to, so long as they live and these problems come up in their lives, then there's always like, the second, the next question about the way the culture around you, you know, as a literary magazine, you want to be responsive to the culture around you. And we've talked a lot about over the last few years how, you know, there has been a kind of shift in the culture, whereas I think, during the Trump years and a bit before that, there was a sense that The Point, part of The Point's project became helping to sort of maintain a space for a certain kind of self reflection, and talk about art and philosophy that was not sort of always already politicized, or already ideological in the ways that the sort of culture around us was becoming. I think that as we described in our in our issue on beauty, the editorial was called the letter on the aesthetic turn. And there there has been a turn toward sort of, there has been a certain kind of exhaustion in the culture with, with with with politics or with the politicization of everyday life. I mean, it may sound silly to say that in the wake, and in the moment we're living through now with the with the war in Gaza. But, you know, Notwithstanding that, I think, in general, there has been a sort of like a sort of a sort of ratcheting down of the pressure in the Biden years, and in the sort of moment we're living in now. And I think, you know, we have felt in some ways, like, we're a little bit less countercultural in that sense, right now, because, because there is less, you know, less in the politicisation sense. On the other hand, I do think that people are more than ever feeling exhausted by technology, by a certain kind of shortening of the attention span and have their nerves around social media. We hear you know, we heard in our, in our public thinking workshops this summer from so much from sort of Gen Z, kids about the sort of, yeah, the tension and stress they feel on technology all the time, and how badly they want to be free from it. And I think one thing, the point can continue to promise people is a really sort of, you know, a really sort of rich, long form experience of essays that allow you to take a step back from this sort of immediacy of, of this technology thrusts on all of us, and and really have space to think that's definitely something I continue to value it for. And value it, you know, in my own life, in that way.


Rachel Wiseman  49:24

Yeah. And I think also that sort of exhaustion that people feel with social media, whether even you also see it and even the way people talk about politics with the upcoming campaign. It's like they can't even everything seems so obvious. It's, you know, it seems like how do you even come up with like, a new thought about the election or, you know, other things that are going on right now? And I think one of the things that I hope that the magazine can continue to do is to give readers a sense of, you know, how one might pay it Tension in a certain way, so that like that exhaustion no longer has the same hold on you that you're able to, to experience something, feel something, be moved by something and find yourself. Yeah, moved, moved to right move to speak. And that that itself can be motivating. For me as a reader whenever I land on someone's work, who is so, you know, enthralled by it. It's it's exciting.


Jon Baskin  50:32

Just one other thing to piggyback off what Rachel was saying. I mean, I think that I always feel that the point plays a role of being against despair. And I think that that's something despair and pessimism that's quite prevalent in the culture right now. Even if it's a somewhat muted less anger in some way, that anger of the 2000 10s the politicization was actually tied to a certain kind of optimism or a certain sense that one could change the world. For the better. Now, it's just like Jaden, I think that there's a danger in the pulling back from that feeling that people go to a kind of the other end of the spectrum, which can can very easily shade into a kind of nihilistic pessimism. And this is something you know, I think, I think the point, not only in its sort of saying there are things worthy of paying attention to in our own lives, but also that there's a tradition that our tradition has resources for thinking through the very period we're going through now for thinking about the twin dangers of nihilism, and whatever you want to call the other pole of sort of, you know, wish fulfillment or being overly idealistic or ideological. And that you know, that these are the there are resources and literature and philosophy in history that can help us think these things through.


Jessica Swoboda  51:51

Well, Jon, and Rachel, thank you again for joining us. It's been fun to talk to you about two of The Point's essays but also just about the philosophy of The Point as well.


Zach Fine  52:00

Yeah thank you guys so much.


Rachel Wiseman  52:01

Thanks for having me, talk to you on Slack soon.


Jon Baskin  52:06

And for delivering a great podcast in The Point's name, we appreciate it.


Jessica Swoboda  52:11

Always.  Thanks, everyone for joining us for this episode of selected essays. We'd like to thank John Trevaskis for editing the podcast and Meg Duffy of Hand Habits or contributing the original music. As always subscribe wherever you get your podcasts, and please subscribe to The Point. There's a discount code for listeners in the show notes. If you have questions, comments or anything else, send an email to We'd love to hear from you. Until next time, listeners

Essays that embody the spirit of The Point
The function of the honeymoon
An essay about Shakespeare translations and personal identity
Immediacy in experience and art
The evolution of "The Point essay"
Academic life and public writing
Editing inspiration
The future of literary essays