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 New York TimesThe Atlantic, The Economist, The Wall Street Journal, and other publications. Writing about books always gives me the chance to read something new and fascinating. I hope you’ll find the same on this website. Whether your interest is nature, law, people, or music, 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” archives every article I’ve written dating back to 2002. This Home page shows my most recent work.

Recent Articles

Too Beautiful

November 26, 2020  | 

The moment he saw an organ, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart knew what to do with it. Aged six, already a prodigy on the clavier, he encountered pedals and stops for the first time in an Austrian church. Within minutes he was accompanying mass and improvising freely. In the following year, 1763, an official in Heidelberg was …

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The Amateur’s Ascent

November 14, 2020  | 

How’s this for an adventure: Buy a small airplane and learn to fly it. Point it east, toward the highest mountain range on Earth. Travel halfway around the world, solo, from England to Nepal, stopping to refuel in the great cities of Rome, Cairo, Baghdad and Delhi. Use subterfuge and luck to evade the police …

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Northern Symphony

October 2, 2020  | 

John Luther Adams spent much of his adult life in Alaska, not for the mountains or the stargazing but for the quiet. It allowed the composer to think, and, more important, to listen. He carried a music notebook on walks and took dictation directly from the birds. He practiced his tympani parts for the Fairbanks …

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All the Presidents’ Man

September 25, 2020  | 

During the confusion that followed the attempt on Ronald Reagan’s life in 1981, Alexander Haig, the secretary of state, proclaimed at the White House podium: “I am in control.” Breathless and sweating, Haig reassured no one. While he floundered, someone else took command. James Baker, the chief of staff, monitored Reagan’s condition, kept the government …

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A Hateful Beauty

September 17, 2020  | 

Hitler casts as long a shadow over Richard Wagner as Wagner casts over art. So argues Alex Ross, the music critic of the New Yorker, in his gigantic new book, “Wagnerism.” Fifty years after the German composer’s death in 1883, his operas became “the chief cultural ornament of the most destructive political regime in history.” …

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My Captain Jacks

June 19, 2020  | 

I don’t know anyone but me who’s got a work of art that was tailor-made for him. Not tailor-made in the sense that the author or artist made a personal gift of it: I’m not referring to dedicatees. Nor do I mean favorites. Everyone has favorites. I mean stumbling across a film or novel that …

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