1. Love is a rare and special thing, and it happens only because the circumstances are perfect. Love requires serious moonlight.
2. If human genius could thrive without a system to support it, Hollywood and Silicon Valley would be located in Papua New Guinea.
3. The United States has created extraordinary things, mostly because it has been possible and wonderful and profitable to do so here in a way that isn’t possible anywhere else in the world. It takes the whole machine working smoothly to get to greatness, because greatness is rare and difficult.
4. How many of us can articulate our thoughts as perfectly as they are when they hit like eureka? Expression is a miracle.
5. When you take a genius and put him in any setting, including one that is the artistic equivalent of a factory, art will come out. Artists make art. Talented people do not need atmosphere to work. They do not need inspiration. They just need time and payment. They need to treat what they do like a job. They need to show up. Writing the Great American Novel has more in common with coal mining than it does with keeping a journal—it is hard labor, long and intense. You cannot learn to be talented—you are born that way. After that, it is all a matter of behaving like everybody else and doing the work. This is what Americans understand very well. We do not romanticize creativity.
6. The American flag is the most exquisite and artistic of all the banners of all the nations. The asymmetry of its exotic design cannot be explained by the fad for Greek Revival architecture that is another contemporaneous remnant of 1776. For some wacky reason, Betsy Ross—the mythic seamstress, much like Dolley Madison is the First Lady of ice cream—stuck the blue patch of white stars in the corner, when by all rights it ought to be in the center.
7. The Founders were far out, very far out, in the truest sense: the denotation that is the connotation.
8. Maybe the Chinese know math better because they count grains of rice or something, but American sixteen-year-olds invent apps on a dime–and America invented the sixteen-year-old. We have sixteen-year-olds galore, more and more all the time. We have stupid sixteen-year-olds inventing stupid apps that everyone in China wants.
9. I often wonder if the Founding Fathers sat down in the pub over steins of ale, or at a dining room table over a hardy supper, and said to each other, Let’s start a country. They must have been crazy: 70 percent of businesses fail within a decade, so what chance has a startup nation got?
10. If you think it’s annoying to wait for the next season of House of Cards, just think of a time when the big excitement was a change in the weather. Nothing ever happened back then. No one left his village. There was work and sleep and church on Sunday and the same people all the time. So those who travelled overseas to live were the outliers of history. They were the outliers of everything.
11. A 2006 study by psychiatrists at Duke University Medical Center study found that forty-nine percent of American presidents between 1776 and 1974 were mentally ill.
12. He read thousands of pamphlets written and distributed in the colonies in the build-up to the American Revolution, and he concludes that this agitprop worked. It was as bad as pundits screaming on Fox News today.
13. Perhaps people were as crazy in late eighteenth century America as any version of craziness that we are accustomed to now. Perhaps it was its own Age of Aquarius in a way that even we could recognize, if we thought of it that way. Perhaps, as Bob Dylan said of a more recent era, “There was music in the cafes at night/ And revolution in the air.” It might be advantageous to look at the American founding as a project of people not in their right minds.
14. The Founding Fathers were virtuous and serious men, and their vision was not of a civil society centered on the gyrations of Elvis Presley’s hips, or on the sinking ship in Titanic. Could they have imagined that Kanye West would want to pack it all in to design hotels? They did not see Jay-Z performing “Picasso Baby” as if holding court at the Pace Gallery. They did not contemplate Gawker. They did not live in a land of millions of Beliebers.
15. We like to believe that all good things from the American Revolution have something to do with Thomas Jefferson. Or that all good things ever have something to do with him. He’s the cool one. He’s the groovy patriarch. He has red hair.
16. Seldom is virtue an incentive for quality when it comes to creativity. Money makes the world go around. And around and around.
17. A meritocracy is not fair at all: It rewards the talented, the brilliant and the beautiful, who are already lucky.
18. If you get the feeling life is unfair, you are onto something. Even the wicked get worse than they deserve. But what can you do? Go sue unfair. There is a huge class action lawsuit waiting to be filed against unfair.
19. We are all guilty of the belief that sex—or at least hot sex—was invented in 1967. Or 1981. Or 1993. Or last year, if you’re a teenager.
20. An immigrant is an extreme person. No matter how bad circumstances are in your native country, regardless of the death threat, complacency and entropy means most people will stay put amid famine and genocide. Anyone who crosses deserts and mountains and oceans and borders because life means more to him than stillness is brave. Never disrespect an immigrant.
21. Starting a state is a crackpot undertaking, and while we revere Washington and his peers, we cannot forget that they must have been crazy, as were all the people who came here, thinking for whatever desperate reason that it was a good idea.
22. Art is in a feedback loop with its audience. Even the Mona Lisa is not the same now as it was in 1517 when King Francis I of France bought it for 4,000 écus after the death of Leonardo da Vinci. The Mona Lisa is the most famous painting ever: It is a permanent part of the Louvre, but the sale price if ever it were to happen would be ten figures.
23. Perhaps you don’t appreciate Francis Bacon’s yellow triptych of Lucien Freud, but someone put $142 million worth of appreciation into it. The most beautiful painting is the one that fetched the highest price. Talent matters not at all if no one cares. Talent gets noticed.
24. We live in an interactive world. The plot thickens and thins based on the ratings and viewer comments. That is why, per Marx, everything happens twice, first as tragedy then as comedy. That is why, per Gandhi, everything happens in four parts—they ignore you, they laugh at you, they fight you, you win.
25. How lucky can you get that it is possible to be excited to death by three chords in three minutes, and it happens all the time? It happens with the Raspberries. It happens with Big Star. It happens with Cheap Trick. It happens with Vampire Weekend. I am told it happens with Justin Bieber.
26. Nothing lasts, and worse still, nothing lasts for long: 87 percent of the companies in the Fortune 500 in 1955 were no longer on that list in 2011; a full third of the Fortune 500 from 1970 was gone by 1983. The world moves quickly and a lot happens and nothing lasts.
27. Writing is the most difficult thing you can do sitting down and it is much harder to do in any other position.
28. We do our best work when we are striving. If it’s too easy, nothing happens.
29. We all get better and sharper and smarter with age, but we are never so keen and alive as when we are screaming to be heard.
30. Writers and painters and filmmakers are incentivized by money, just like everyone else, and the need to make a living is the best reason to get out of bed and do great work. The story of art in America, of science in the States, is the story of people from solid homes doing good work in safely pleasant circumstances, with just a little bit of that edge, that challenge, mostly of people telling them it can’t be done, that gives anyone with a dream the necessary determination.
31. Most people, using everything they have in real life, cannot take hold of you the way a talented writer can without even being there. Talent is the ability to mesmerize people when you are nowhere near. Talent is the ability to make something that is more stunning than human presence.
32. There are too many people trying to be all kinds of things that are difficult. This has always been true, and were it not we would have no waiters and no bartenders. The world is full of people who would like to do things they can’t. But before everyone had an eight-megapixel camera on his iPhone, it was a lot more difficult for amateurs to imagine they could compete with Richard Avedon.
33. The conversation about intellectual property in the age of the Internet is an empire of the senseless. No one knows how to monetize anything correctly: These are the days of heaven only knows.
34. In the United States, you know you are talented because somebody is paying for your work.
35. Deep Throat was right when he told Woodward and Bernstein to follow the money, because activity goes where it is rewarded. Willie Sutton robbed banks, because that’s where the money is. Money explains everything. Used to be, if you were a hard-luck kid in a dead-end town in a flyover state, you learned to play the guitar—or the bass, or drums if you were hyperactive—because maybe you could join a band and hit the road and make it big. And even if that did not work, at least along the way you could get laid. Now every kid wants to invent the next big app. That’s where the money is.
36. Money is more than just rent and emeralds, money is more than just meals and platinum, money is more than the many things it buys and funds and pays for: Money is glitter. Money is attention. Money is where the action is. If something is valuable, it generates excitement. What is worthless gets lost, and lost to history. Now that there is no money in being a musician because no one buys albums anymore, the dream is no longer to be on stage beneath the bright strobe spotlight at Madison Square Garden. The dream is a tech start-up.
37. Music still exists. It is still made and sold. But no one loves it the way teenagers used to love it. That is not possible, because the message is the medium, and downloads don’t feel like LPs. They don’t feel like anything at all.
38. The teenager is gone. As a group, teenagers came and went with the twentieth century. Starting in the 1950’s, adolescence became a liminal state between childhood and responsibility, when rebellion in ways that annoyed your parents but were otherwise harmless became available. Does that exist anymore? People of all ages smoke marijuana and listen to Mumford & Sons, while high school students do their homework and worry about the future.
39. We are here to be entertained. We are not here to do a Google search. We are not here to stare into the void. We are here to have fun.
40. There was no state apparatus that pushed along the great copyright and trademark fields, our big movies are not underwritten by the government as they are in so many European countries, the glorious fashions of Calvin Klein and Marc Jacobs are not made in nationalized assembly lines, deregulation is the rule in all industry. Bicycle designers Wilbur and Orville Wright flew their first glider on the beach in Kitty Hawk, not at a United States Air Force base. We don’t just distrust government to run things—we also assume it has terrible taste and can’t fly.
41. The greatest of the great American art forms have been done in factory settings, with profit in mind. No one can convince me that Hollywood is not the greatest artist ever. I cannot imagine who or what even comes close. Take that, Michelangelo.
42. So what’s so great about authenticity? Love is an illusion, conjured from what we choose to believe about another person. Does it matter if that person is real or like real? Does it matter if our emotions are real or like real? Is there a difference?
43. The movies are pretend, which is why they are what we are. We walk around in a state of narrative. Life is more like a movie than it is like life.
44. No one knows how much painting Warhol did himself, if at all. And I mean, if at all: Warhol believed in delegating; he was the Ronald Reagan of painters. Do you doubt that he is a genius? He invented a world. We live in the culture that Warhol manufactured. He is forever now.
45. The Eagles sound like cocaine going up someone’s nose.
46. Talent is not just one thing, it is a valise of hellfire. Talent is being extraordinary at a particular thing, but it is also being extraordinary at everything else: It is having a huge personality that will not quit, it is tirelessness when other people are exhausted and done, it is screaming at people to listen when they don’t want to and somehow convincing them they will die if they don’t, it is being sure you are talented even when you are not sure, it is doing the same thing over and over and over and over again and then some until it is perfect and still not being satisfied, it is never being satisfied, it is being indifferent to other people’s talent, it is being indifferent to other people’s anything at all, it is hard work every day, it is more screaming at people, it is charm, it is a complete commitment to nothing but the thing you are talented at. Talent is a world.