I’ve been doing less social media these days, and have turned instead to a form of content that I would not have pictured myself getting into a year ago: email newsletters.
Before you laugh, just know that I’m not alone. According to the New York Times, which is always absolutely true and never biased about anything, there’s a sub-movement happening here! Read: “The New Social Network That Isn’t New at All.”
For me the biggest benefits of newsletters—relative to social media—are: less distraction, higher quality writing (generally speaking), and less cynicism, bullying, and political posturing (also generally speaking). And since the Internet is a wonderful place to offer unsolicited advice, I thought I’d recommend a few of my favorite newsletters for the Internet’s consideration.
Jacobs, a professor of English at Baylor University, is a superb essayist and scholar whose work on critical thinking I admire. His newsletter is loaded with art references as well as commentaries on current events, books, literature, writing, technology, and the like. He also includes updates about his latest work, including whatever article he’s just published, books he’s reading, and status updates on what he’s writing. I almost always see a picture or link to some cool story that I wouldn’t have heard of otherwise. Recent updates of his featured a piece about green urban architecture, and an article from The New Yorker about a philosopher who thinks that the human race has a moral responsibility to stop making babies. (To be clear, Jacobs does not share this conclusion.)
Jacobs also has a thoughtful blog, and recently published a very good book about Christian humanitarian intellectuals during World War II.
Beha, executive editor of Harper’s Magazine, has lots of incisive things to say about literature, politics, and art. I’ve not read any of his books, but from his essays I can tell that he’s a reflective person and humble conversationalist who gives the benefit of the doubt to his interlocutors. One of his recent blasts included some ruminations on the trouble that artists have in separating art and politics.
What I like about Beha’s newsletter is that he treats it more as an essay opportunity. His prose is elegant and his thoughts are deep; he does not throw out that many pictures or links (unlike Jacobs and some of the others on this list, who share shorter updates and a lot of links and artwork). That does mean that his newsletters are not as frequent as one might wish, but I am fine with this. Quality over quantity, and all that.
Sloan is the best-selling author of Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore (which, alas, I have never read; but it is on my list). As with Jacobs’ newsletter, Sloan includes lots of art and reflections on culture and current events. He has a special interest in sci-fi, video games, and how technology is evolving and shaping us. (For example, not long ago he shared some links to a fascinating story about the future of transportation and a short sci-fi movie that I didn’t understand but which was visually and emotionally stunning.) The thing about Sloan is… well, his updates are just super charming. Even as he expresses deep thoughts about life, he talks about laboring in his olive grove and gets excited about simple pleasures. In one of his newsletters, he reported on a trip he made to Japan and shared pictures of a book he purchased at a local bookstore. Here’s one of the pictures:
His reaction: “I mean, look at it! Pages and pages of cute, detailed cutaways of public baths!!”
How can you not laugh at that?
I’ve mentioned before that Kleon is on a mission to inspire the artists in the world to study other artists, share their work, and keep going in good times and bad. His newsletter focuses on ten things he finds interesting each week related to art and creativity. The sheer number of links can be overwhelming but without fail there’s one or two that I’m glad I clicked through. For example, his last one linked to an essay about why to blog, which does a better job of saying what I’ve said before on the subject.
Hearts and Minds, by Byron Borger
Byron runs an indie Christian bookstore in Dallastown, PA, not far from where I went to college. I’ve met him a few times before (though it’s been over a decade since we saw each other in person), and he’s an all-around kind, intelligent, and articulate follower of Christ. His regular updates include helpful summaries and reviews on the latest Christian books and how they intersect with the pressing issues of our time—from sexuality and social justice to political engagement, worship, and discipleship. Whenever I add a book concerning some theological or spiritual topic to my list, I mark it with a note to get from Hearts and Minds. The faithful presence of Byron and his little shop are well worth supporting in every way possible.
Electric Speed, by Jane Friedman
Friedman is an author and former editor whose passion is to help aspiring authors better understand the business of publishing. She’s got a series of lectures over at Great Courses that I found immensely enlightening. (One of the many excellent lessons she delivers in the series is a sample interview of an aspiring author pitching his book idea to an agent.) Her newsletter is a nice extension of her expertise, complete with helpful links and resources about how to build a book-writing career. Two really good resources, for example, are her posts on a book’s first page and how to analyze reports on author income surveys.
So that’s what I got. If you have your own newsletter suggestions, I’d love to hear ’em; I’m always open to diversifying my list. At the same time I am trying not to be too overwhelmed with digital content. Easier said than done!