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. I find that one of the advantages of writing about books—besides all the free books—is that it 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

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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The Supreme Court’s Enduring Bias

February 11, 2020  | 

A template for popular books about the Supreme Court has emerged since Bob Woodward and Scott Armstrong’s The Brethren was published in 1979. It goes like this: Interweave case histories with biographical material on the justices and add anecdotes about their unseemly horse-trading. Then pack in as much gossip as you can. Journalists including Jeffrey …

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Stars and Bars

December 12, 2019  | 

Not even classical music, politest of art forms, is safe from politics. In the mid-20th century, when performers affiliated with the Third Reich visited American concert halls, patriotic audiences howled. The Norwegian soprano Kirsten Flagstad—whose husband was a lumber magnate and Nazi collaborator—had to sing in Philadelphia in 1947 amid stink bombs and protest signs. …

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An Enduring Vision of Tyranny

October 18, 2019  | 

The year 1984 came and went a generation ago, and the clocks did not strike 13. Big Brother’s face doesn’t stare down at us from giant posters. Masked police do not apprehend citizens guilty of thoughtcrime. England hasn’t been renamed Airstrip One, and Party slogans like “War Is Peace,” “Freedom Is Slavery” and “Ignorance Is Strength” …

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Deconstructing Clarence Thomas

August 5, 2019  | 

The first thing to know about Clarence Thomas is that everybody at the Supreme Court loves him. Surprisingly, given his uncompromising public persona and his near-total silence during oral arguments, Thomas cultivates a jovial presence in the building’s austere marble hallways. Unlike most of his colleagues, he learns everyone’s name, from the janitors to each justice’s …

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No One Said It Would Be Easy

May 17, 2019  | 

As talk of impeachment fills the air, an exceptionally topical new book explores the failed effort to remove President Andrew Johnson from office in 1868. Johnson ascended to the presidency after Lincoln’s assassination and embarked on a perverse campaign to roll back the Union’s achievements during the Civil War. Racist mobs marauded unchecked through the …

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