Michael O'Donnell | Reader, Writer

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Thanks for stopping by. Here you’ll find a collection of my magazine and newspaper writing from the Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic, The Nation, and other publications. One of the advantages of writing about books—besides all the free books—is the chance to read something new and fascinating. I hope you’ll find the same on this website. Whether your interest is politics, law, people, or music, perhaps you’ll find a few moments of diversion here. Take a spin around and drop me a line.

A note on navigating the site: “Featured Articles” is a best-of page, containing twenty or so greatest hits. “Reviews and Essays” contains every article I’ve written dating back to 2002. This Home page contains my most recent work.

Recent Articles

The Sound of the Future

December 11, 2017  | 

Beethoven was the first great Romantic composer, and if you listen closely you can hear the moment he launched a new era in music. It occurs about a minute into the third movement of his Symphony No. 3, Eroica. After ninety-two bars of indeterminate pianissimo throat clearing, the orchestra suddenly scales upward and erupts in …

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Another Reason to Rejoice Greatly

December 8, 2017  | 

It is a December evening, and you’re trapped in a school auditorium for the holiday concert. The long-suffering music director raises a baton, the violins screech horribly and some petrified high-school tenor, all puberty and nerves, squeaks out the first few notes of “Comfort Ye,” the opening aria of Handel’s “Messiah.” Your soul convulses as …

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Da Vinci’s Diaries

October 26, 2017  | 

Leonardo da Vinci — bearded sage of the Renaissance, anatomist, engineer, inventor, and creator of two of the most famous paintings in history (Mona Lisa and The Last Supper) — was first and foremost a mensch. He was, according to an acquaintance, handsome and kind, a gay vegetarian, “friendly, precise, and generous, with a radiant, …

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Russia’s Founding Father

August 24, 2017  | 

When Mikhail Gorbachev rose to give his first address as general secretary of the Communist Party in 1985, listeners could be forgiven for having low expectations. The previous three Soviet premiers were walking fossils. Their mumbling speeches inspired no one. Konstantin Chernenko, Gorbachev’s immediate predecessor, wheezed and coughed and was as yellow as old fingernails; …

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How the Thug Became a Dove

June 10, 2017  | 

While serving as attorney general, Robert Kennedy wore his hair close-cropped in the style of the early 1960s. After a trip to the barber it could almost resemble a crew cut. But after President Kennedy’s assassination, he began growing it out. By the time he became a candidate for president in 1968, he had an …

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Where the Water Goes

May 5, 2017  | 

Some miles south of the Mexican city of Los Algodones, near the Baja Peninsula, the Colorado River ends. It used to flow to the sea, emptying into the Gulf of California. As recently as midcentury, its delta was a wetland ecosystem, with lagoons, fish, and jaguars. Now the drainage basin is an arid wasteland. Motorists …

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