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Substack Reads: Cosmic house, love in a factory, and what beans tell you about time
Welcome to Substack Reads. This week, we browse Gregory Warner’s readings on the love lives of migrant workers in China and then Andrew Eberlin’s photo essay on the postmodernist experiment in London called the Cosmic House. We start with a brilliant reader recommendation: Chris Dalla Riva’s interview with legendary songwriter Billy Steinberg. We hope you enjoy it!
A songwriter of more than 30 years and countless pop classics, Billy Steinberg talks to Chris Dalla Riva about the story behind the songs “Like a Virgin,” “Eternal Flame,” “I Touch Myself,” and Demi Lovato’s hit “Give Your Heart a Break”
—in , recommended by
I don’t play keyboards. I only play guitar. And I don’t play well enough to come up with a way to play “Like a Virgin” uptempo on the guitar. So when I perform it, which I do occasionally, I play it like a ballad. That emphasizes the flip side of the song.
But here’s something else that gives me the chills. The person who won The Voice in Italy like ten years ago was a woman by the name of Sister Cristina. She is an actual nun living in a convent. If you look her up, you’ll see an absolutely beautiful video of a nun singing “Like a Virgin” as a ballad in Venice, coincidentally the same place Madonna made her video for “Like a Virgin.” This nun saw a serious side to the song. Maybe it made her think of God or Jesus or something. I don’t know. But it was interesting that someone independently came up with a very potent version of the song that was the absolute opposite of Madonna.
Now, the demo that was presented to Madonna was uptempo. It was a blueprint for her version. So I didn’t think of it as a ballad, but the lyric does have more content to it than the average person would imagine.
The host of the recently axed NPR podcast Rough Translation, Gregory Warner, unveils a love crisis among migrant workers in China
For the last few years, Wanning [Sun] has been talking to Chinese migrant workers about their love lives. These are workers who toil long shifts in Chinese factories, producing iPhones and everything else. As might be a surprise to no one: grueling shifts, low pay, and mass migration can do a number on people’s dating success.
Tech writer and host of KQED’s Forum Alexis Madrigal considers how to unfreeze time with author Jenny Odell and a pot of scarlet runner beans, in his new Substack
When my oldest kid was a toddler, we were wandering around the neighborhood when they snatched a bean pod from a plant. The pod was big but ordinary, kind of leathery. Not thinking much of it, I opened the pod and… HOLY SHIT. Plump, perfectly marbled purple beans lay inside like polished rocks from a precious collection. We danced, astonished at our good fortune. Can you believe these goddamn beans?!! From that day until this one, we call them magic beans, even though, as the gardeners have already guessed, they were just perfectly normal scarlet runner beans. We now plant them regularly—I can see some blooming from where I sit right now—and every time the first pod ripens, I want to shout as I pull out these tiny miracles.
Another listener, Antonio, said on that show: “We have a saying in hazardous industries: Ignored safety concerns become landscape. Meaning: if you ignore something for a while, you no longer see it.”
How many magic beans have you eaten?
Andrew Eberlin visits the London home of architectural theorist Charles Jencks, who subjected his family to an extreme experiment in postmodernism
The alterations were carried out between 1978 and 1983. The original house was built in the early 1840s.
It is the only postwar home in the UK which is Grade I listed.
Following Charles Jencks’s death, the house was opened to the public with the aim to “promote critical experimentation.” A generous bequest given the ridiculous prices neighbouring houses sell for.
“Every space is named thematically. Ceilings billow into sails, or tents, elliptical mirrored domes or are painted with swirling, cloudy skies. Philosophers, poets, astronomers and architects from many centuries and countries are represented in busts or frescoes. Floors have enigmatic messages stencilled on them.”
And after that breathless description, here is a brief pictorial tour…
Max Read interviews former Buzzfeed News writer and, more recently, former editor in chief of Threads, Katie Notopoulos
One thing that I found really interesting about the experience was that a key feature that does not exist on Threads is you can repost—essentially a retweet or quote tweet—but you don’t see that count, and you don’t get notifications about it. So when you have something like this post that went viral, I could see I was getting a lot of replies to it, but I could not see how it was spreading. And that’s a very interesting, weird dynamic when you’re trying to figure out a piece of content that’s very specifically like this.
Writer and illustrator Michael Young won’t promise recommendations for restaurants in Italy, but he has observations about clouds and a thrilling anecdote about seeing a deer
— Michael Young in
Italy can be a loud, hectic place at times. Like someone has turned up the volume ever so slightly. Or in Naples’ case, the volume has been turned up full and the volume knob has broken off and caught fire. That’s why Tuscany is so important. Sitting in the upper middle of the country and providing welcome relief on your trip between top and bottom. A soothing lemon sorbet for the brain.
Bestselling author and writer Tasmina Perry extols the virtues of a vacation scrapbook
I thought about that line this week when I found an old holiday journal in the back of a cupboard. Usually I just use photos taken on my camera phone to document a holiday. But that year, on a trip to St Ives, I’d taken a morning journalling class with my artist friend Zoe Eaton. Under Zoe’s guidance, I’d backed a cheap exercise book with fabric in the colours of the Cornish ocean. I’d done some line drawings and watercolour paintings and stuck them in the book, alongside beer mats from a favourite pub, stamps with St Ives postmarks, and pages torn out of a tourist guide, highlighting the places we’d been to—a farmers market, a gallery, a garden. The end result was a scrapbook that, years later, made me remember that holiday much more clearly—right down to the vase of sweet peas on the table of our holiday cottage. It was a notebook about a moment in time and what it felt to me.
Congratulations to the following writers celebrating publication.’s new book is now available for pre-orders: explains how she landed a big-five book deal in Jane Friedman’s newsletter.
What’s happening in Notes shares advice and lessons on growth:
Andquips about Notes:
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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 by Hannah Ray.
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