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 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

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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The Common Miracles

June 12, 2020  | 

What is a mountain: Is it a trophy or a temple? Recently we have begun to claim nature’s grandest tableaux as prizes. Alex Honnold climbs El Capitan with no rope. Crowded rows of paying customers line the summit ridge of Mount Everest like Black Friday shoppers. Alpinists rush to check off the highest peak of …

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Saint, Sinner, Troublemaker

April 17, 2020  | 

In the early 1950s, as the Cold War began to take shape, the radical Catholic Dorothy Day protested a series of nuclear air-raid drills in New York City. Rather than staying indoors as ordered, Day and other pacifists gathered in parks and waited to be arrested. The gesture signified their refusal to participate in “psychological …

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Variations on a Theme

February 15, 2020  | 

When a musician sits down and tries to play something for the first time, an extraordinary thing can happen, writes the critic Philip Kennicott. If he or she has heard the music before but never attempted it, a feeling not unlike the flush of romantic love can occur. For a few carefree minutes, there is …

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