February 21, 2017

No person living today knows exactly what an 1850s minstrel banjo sounded like; the music that was made on such instruments predates the invention of recorded sound. But we know that the banjo was brought to America by Africans, and that white players, including Thomas F. Briggs—author of the first banjo instruction book, an invaluable resource for historians and musicians—learned from black banjoists. When Giddens composes for or performs on her banjo, she channels both the history and the mystery of early American banjo music: what has been passed down as well as what has been lost.

May 18, 2017

Wendy Brenner’s classic 2005 profile of snake enthusiast Dean Ripa, who died Saturday.

By now I’ve grown accustomed (and rather devoted) to Dean’s rhetorical style—outrageous overstatement, subsequent qualification—but I think I recognize something else, something authentic here: a certain strain of introverted misanthropy that often leads people to commit their lives to animals, something I think I know about from my family. Introverts and loners love animals. It runs the spectrum, I think, from my father’s boyhood shyness to full-fledged autism—Temple Grandin and all those like her who understand animals better than people. Whether it’s a quirk of personality or a genuine disorder, it’s a trait I find familiar and strangely comforting.