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

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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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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