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

Down to the River

April 21, 2022  | 

As he paddled the great rivers of America, Dick Conant counted. Numbers lent structure to the endless strokes and days, and staved off boredom. He made a game of reaching key figures—palindromes and years with historical significance (abundant in his encyclopedic memory). Conant also marked dates from his own life. In 1972 he slept on …

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Red Leader

February 4, 2022  | 

Edward Gibbon sits proudly upon my bookshelf. A set of volumes that I own, neatly stacked, comprises his “History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.” What do you make of me because it is there? The set might indicate that I am a classicist, a scholar. It could signal my ambition—or my …

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Out of the Abyss

January 13, 2022  | 

The road from the Third Reich to modern Germany began in a field of rubble. The second world war had left behind enough of it to form a mountain 4,000 metres high, if it were piled up on the Nazi party rally grounds in Nuremberg. When the war ended, citizens began clearing it all up. …

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Two Faces of a Star

December 2, 2021  | 

She was everything on screen and not much off it. That is the conclusion to be drawn from Robert Gottlieb’s biography of Greta Garbo, the legendary film star of the 1920s and 1930s. “Was she even an actress, or was she merely a glorious presence?” he asks. Readers’ assessments of her glory may depend on …

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Message in a Bottle

December 2, 2021  | 

It sounds more like a bad visit to the otolaryngologist than an important conflict between empires. The incident that gave the War of Jenkins’ Ear its name occurred in 1731, when a Spanish coastguard commander mutilated the captain of a British privateer suspected of smuggling in the Caribbean. Jenkins’ severed appendage was preserved in a …

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Supposing They’re Wrong?

September 24, 2021  | 

In 1954 a young screenwriter received a summons for jury service in New York. For the rest of his life he would describe how he sat with his peers in a homicide case, helping argue the conviction down from manslaughter to assault. The accused had punched a loudmouth who had pulled a knife in a bar …

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