Substack Reads: The food trend storming America; plus, the fall of Revlon
Inspiration comes from all sorts of places. If you’re photographer Gregory Crewdson, it comes after a long, punishing swim first thing in the morning. If you’re author Carmen Maria Machado, it comes with patience and age. If you’re Charles Revson, founding father of the Revlon cosmetics company, it came from the idea of “high class.”
In this issue of Substack Reads you can find all of these stories, along with a selection of writers whose work we have handpicked to get you through the week ahead.
As ever, we hope you enjoy reading them—and if we’ve missed a post or podcast you love, then please recommend it and the writer in the comments section below.
Gregory Crewdson is one of the world’s most famous photographers—with one of the most unorthodox ways of unleashing creative ideas
My daily swim is not a hobby. I don’t do it for fun, or recreation. I don’t even think of it as exercise, even though it’s definitely that. For me, open-water swimming is a ritual, a practice, a discipline, a meditation. It’s an absolute. I swim because I must. It’s a basic need, an essential part of my makeup. I swim so that I am.
Similar to the way my pictures are connected to place, so are my swims. I can get by swimming in a pool in the off-season, or in a surrogate lake if I absolutely have to, but when I say “my swim,” I mean Upper Goose Pond, with a specific route. That’s my swim. It’s not convenient, and it’s not quick. It’s a 45-minute drive from my house, then a 35-minute hike. There are no roads leading to this lake. It’s remote, which is part of why I like it. With some slight variation for weather, when it’s lake season, I do the exact same swim every day. It doesn’t get boring, and it doesn’t get old. The repetition is part of it.
Having a fixed route that is familiar is key, and there are multiple reasons why. One is there is fear and real danger involved with open-water swimming. There are various factors involved with that: unexpected weather, lightning, water temperature, air temperature, wind, and sun. These things can all make you disoriented. Having a route and sticking to it mitigates these factors. You can’t always tell from a map or from shore what a distance is going to feel like on a swim, and you don’t want to get partway in and realize you misjudged. But beyond that, the route is important to me for other reasons—more artistic reasons. My creative thoughts and ideas exist within that route, in a way that could be compared to something like a memory palace.
As the cosmetics giant files for bankruptcy, Laura McLaws Helms looks back on its groundbreaking legacy
Even though it was the Depression, Revlon chose not to compete on price but only on quality—likewise, their ads did not focus on the material differences of the enamel (their opaqueness) but instead sold the idea of class (not something the poor cigar roller’s son from Manchester, New Hampshire, had grown up with).
From these early days, Revlon advertised heavily in relation to sales—from mid-1936 on, their ads were consistently in all the major fashion magazines every month. This gave beauty salons and competitors the impression that Revlon was a much larger concern than it was. They borrowed privately for years to not expose quite how modest they were, finally taking bank loans when they were already established and far beyond the point of filling and labeling their polish bottles by hand—actions that they would continue until purchasing some secondhand machinery in 1937, enabled by the success of their products and advertising.
Why the decline in onscreen happiness hints at a society on the brink
Lately I’ve been working through some old Criterion Collection movies with my family, and the first thing you notice with old movies or TV is how happy everyone is. Like how abnormally, freakishly, stupidly, weirdly, cheerful. The past is always fundamentally unknowable to us, although the mechanisms by which this opaqueness occurs is unclear, and I oscillate between thinking that people in, say, the 1950s were fundamentally different from us psychologically and the opposite position that they were exactly like us.
Think of 30 Rock, a TV show about comedy writers writing a comedy TV show. It is very funny, but not one of the characters could be described as happy. The setup (comedy writers working at a sketch-comedy TV show) is identical to that of 1961’s The Dick Van Dyke Show (also about comedy writers working at a sketch-comedy TV show). In The Dick Van Dyke Show, all the characters (including Mary Tyler Moore, the singing/dancing talented housewife) are portrayed as being extremely happy. We readily acknowledge now that The Dick Van Dyke Show is a fantasy, but it’s odd to think that this is a fantasy true in pretty much any old TV show, and often holds in movies as well. Old music also feels more cheerful to me—the ’50s may have been abnormally Stepford-wives cheerful, but the power rock of the ’80s is also incredibly cheerful, and consumed today only with a thick dollop of irony on top.
It’s all a jarring contrast to the dominant themes of today’s cultural production, which is “dark and gritty.” The one note today’s entertainment strikes is the depressive tone—and that’s spoken by someone who, at various times in his life, has struggled with depression. But even in the worst bouts of it, the experience of my inner life was not as limited in emotional range as many of the shows you can find on Netflix. Or, e.g., Batman remakes.
It’s taken 30 years, but author and former Gourmet Magazine editor Ruth Reichl’s prediction has finally come true
The Gourmet staff used to laugh at me because every time some reporter asked about The Next Big Thing in restaurants, I invariably answered “Korean.” This was, you understand, before David Chang and Roy Choi made Korean cooking cool. Everybody thought I was out of my mind.
I fell in love with Korean food in the early ’70s when I became friends with a terrific Korean cook. But my appreciation for Korean cooking really ramped up when I moved to Los Angeles in 1984. I lived near Koreatown, and although I loved the many noodle and barbecue places, my go-to restaurant was Beverly Soon Tofu. (The restaurant closed during the pandemic, but many of us are fervently hoping it will reopen.) Then I moved to New York in the early ’90s, and one of the very first restaurants I reviewed at the New York Times was Kang Suh. This so startled the Korean community that two Korean newspapers called to interview me about it.
Investigative journalist John Sweeney finds horror, and hope, in the streets of Ukraine
Kharkiv, eastern Ukraine. The Russian army is 15 miles away, if that. The border with Russia is only 25 miles away. It’s one o’clock in the morning. I’m hanging out with my pals who have come along for the ride, Max, the owner of the Buena Vista bar in Kyiv, his friend Vovo, who teaches physics at Kyiv Poly, Matej and Tomas, two journalists from Slovakia. Max has brought along some scotch and we’re counterattacking the bottle hard when: incoming. They hit the city 40 times that night.
In the morning, we have breakfast and then go looking for some of what the Russian army has done. At the first bomb site, we see what’s left when a Russian “Hurricane” missile hits a council estate. The Hurricane is half-shell, half-rocket, punching high, higher than Mount Everest, then falling to earth with a bang. It came in, clipping the top of one of a block of flats, before barrelling into a car park, frying dozens of cars, flipping one on its back like a turtle and blasting a hole in the tarmac as deep as an upended coffin. Amazingly, no one was killed.
It’s not just Instagram that has changed; we have too
A successful social product has a symbiotic relationship with its user base. It taps into users’ latent desires and allows them to better connect with each other. However, how we connect and consume content evolves over time. [Instagram CEO Adam] Mosseri acknowledged these shifts in his video. “I do believe that more and more of Instagram is going to become video over time,” he said. “We see this even if we change nothing.”
People think that bringing back the “old” Instagram design, or a chronological feed, will somehow recapture the magic of using Instagram in 2014. It won’t. That time is gone, and the internet and culture have irrevocably changed. Most importantly, how and what we want to share on the internet has changed.
If a Ferris wheel met a 74-footslide, you’d get something like Medusa’s Slidewheel in Wisconsin’s Mt. Olympus theme park. Arthur Levine takes the ride
As perplexing as the ride is for passengers to experience, it’s quite a sight to watch from the outside. It’s difficult to envision what’s happening inside the tubes as the twisted jumble of slide sections revolve and passengers scream and squeal. [Jason Hammond, the park’s director of safety,] says you might think riders would feel as if they are spinning, but that’s not the case. It’s really more of a back-and-forth motion, punctuated by sudden drops. After it opened, Hammond sat outside the park and carefully studied the attraction in action; after an hour, he was able to figure out the convoluted route that passengers take as they make their way through the rotating, hulking ride.
In April, debut author Jumi Bello’s much-hyped book The Leaving was canceled after accusations of plagiarism. On the eve of its slated publication date, fellow author Carmen Maria Machado considers the fragility of the creative life
This is a story about plagiarism, yes, but it’s also a story about something I see so much of—in my capacity as a teacher, a mentor, and just someone who gets asked about publishing literally constantly. That is, how easy it is to let the desire to be published (and by extension obsessed over by name-brand agents, editors, and publishing houses) completely outstrip the act of writing a good book.
Plagiarism is a shortcut, but there are many kinds of shortcuts. This story happens to be a very public and clear-cut example of how confusing the creative work and the business can completely invert your priorities, but I cannot tell you how many people I’ve met who want a ton of advice about publishing even before they’ve finished a single draft of a novel, or even started one. They want to be published more than they want to write, or sit with what they write. Or revise, or research, or return to the page. Or read.
Thousands of Substack writers read their work to readers every single day. Here, Gregory Thomas Gerard reads his column on the surprising effect a drawing of Mickey Mouse by Claes Oldenburg, who died this month, had on his life
Substack Reads is a weekly roundup of writing, ideas, art, and audio from the world of Substack. Posts are recommended by staff and readers, and curated and edited from Substack’s U.K. outpost with writer Hannah Ray and editor Farrah Storr.
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