Monthly Recommendations (July 2021)

This month’s theme is cities, islands and the places that we live in. Few events in my life have triggered as much introspection about the city that I live in and the places that I go to as the ongoing pandemic. Over the past year, people have left cities and retreated into the countryside, finding that their work remains unaffected even if they don’t go to offices and don’t meet their coworkers in real life. But how should we account for the damage to the city’s fabric because of these exits? Optimists continue to believe that things will go back to the way they were and that there will be no long-term impact due to this aberration that we are living through; I count myself in this group, foolhardy as it might be to expect a future identical to the past. Revolutionaries and activists see the leveling of lifestyles between geographies as a step towards equality, a spiritual return to the mixed socioeconomic class communities that were fixtures of towns and villages up to the late 19th century. In an effort to explore this ongoing change more fully, this month I recommend a photo essay that documents a nurse’s daily life, an article about the differing paths for social change depending on the average income of the district that you live in, and an essay about how the place that you grow up in is embedded within your personality.

  1. A City Nurse (photo essay) (Remnick)

    New Yorker (archived), 4th May, 2020

    As the COVID-19 pandemic started taking hold and hospitals around the world, starting with Italy and then New York and then pretty much everywhere at once, dealt with a huge number of hospitalizations, politicians started expressing gratitude to essential workers at the beginning of all their speeches. Indian leaders started extolling these people as “warriors.” These rhetorical changes did not go hand-in-hand with policy changes that might alleviate unprecedented pressures on underfunded healthcare systems. This photo essay details the life of a nurse who went through the worst parts of the pandemic in New York. This was a powerful reminder that the people working inside hospitals were put on a pedestal, but nothing was done to protect them or to improve their lot by politicians and society at-large. The gratitude expressed never turned into collective action (wearing masks, social distancing) or policy action (building large field hospitals, preparation for subsequent waves). Cady Chaplin, the nurse profiles in this article, reacted to the platitudes with matter-of-fact stoicism:

    Many evenings, at seven, Chaplin can hear the cheering and honking, the nightly tribute to the “essential workers” who are keeping the city alive. The sound often makes her tear up with gratitude, but she is wary when she hears platitudes about the “heroic” work of health-care professionals. She doesn’t want to be glorified all of a sudden. “This is what we trained to do,” she says. “This is what we do. That was true a year ago, and it will be true a year from now.”

  2. Abundance of Caution (Gopnik, Montgomery)

    New Yorker (archived), March 30, 2020

    Working patterns have changed over the past year, and if you live in a city, you might have asked yourself what it is about cities that attracts and retains people despite there being no requirement to live there anymore. This is a story that is still being written; cities might well become less popular and end up as abandoned jungles of concrete-and-glass buildings with empty offices. But there is very little indication that that is the direction we are headed for. And so, when people return to cities from their present hiatuses (either from inside their homes or from a completely different place), will the fabric that bound it together remain unchanged? Or has it been damaged by the temporary abandonment? The message in this article is pretty clear although it is not explicitly stated: When the rich-and-wealthy abandon the city where they made their fortune, people notice.

  3. Men Waiting for a Train (Biespiel)

    New Yorker (archived), 18th May, 2020

    This is a poem and it is surprisingly relatable1.

  4. My High-School Commute (Jost)

    New Yorker (archived), 16th March, 2020

    This article, written by SNL Weekend Update’s co-host Colin Jost, is about how the cities that we grow up in are special to us simply because we were there during our formative years. I catch myself waxing nostalgic about how great the city that I grew up in was, even though I never really knew much more of it than the neighborhoods that my house and school were in. Stranger still, I sometimes vehemently defend it against any attack from people who lived there as adults and saw much more of its people and their idiosyncrasies. I doubt that this feeling will ever change for me and this article helped me understand its roots.

  5. Juul Finds Hell Hath No Fury Like an Army of Really Rich Parents (Etter)

    Bloomberg Businessweek (archived), 14th May, 2021

    The wealthy and the well-connected inhabit a world where social change comes from private activities much more frequently than from the traditional route of dreary city council meetings and convincing elected officials. This excerpt from a new book about the American company, Juul, details the campaign against its “vaping products”, a cigarette-like product that emits white smoke and delivers nicotine instead of cigarette’s mix of tobacco and nicotine, in one of America’s wealthiest districts. In these parts, acquaintances from the upper deck seats of a college football stadium can lead to increased pressure on a private company from its regulatory body. Things get done, undoubtedly; whether the benefits of these changes will reach people outside the wealthy parts is not their concern. This article reads like a thriller and introduces a train of interesting characters, each armed with a roster of powerful connections.


  1. This is a change in format. I generally recommend only articles that are of medium length. I also don’t know much about poems, so I stay away from them for the most part. This poem was particularly impactful and evocative and thus, finds a place on this month’s list.