On a mundane college weekday in January, I ran into two friends as I walked out of the library. We exchanged the procedural \”How are you?\”s and reasons to be exhausted, frustrated and grateful. Then I asked what they were up to for the rest of the day.
With enthusiastic smiles, they said they were going to see a talk with writer Jia Tolentino. As a loyal attendee of any event that helps me procrastinate, I was surprised I didn\’t know about this one. And as a self-proclaimed lover of long-form journalism, I was surprised I had never heard of someone who, from a quick Google search, seemed to be very popular at the moment.A meal and an hour later, I walked into a packed CEMEX auditorium. I scanned for an open seat and waited for the introductory applause to finally squeeze my way past some strangers to a seat.Writer and professor, Mark Grief, interviewed Tolentino for the talk. I don\’t remember being particularly moved by anything they said, but that is more of a symptom of my worrying about homework than the actual conversation. I recall that Tolentino made a few jokes, talked about her writing career, and expressed gratitude that she finally got a negative review of her book. I wanted to see what the hype was about, so that weekend, I put an ebook copy of her book, Trick Mirror, on hold at my library.Three months later, after going home for the pandemic, I got the notification that the ebook was finally available.I opened the book on my Kindle as I headed to bed around midnight, and I did not stop reading until 4 am.In Trick Mirror, Tolentino verbally manifests the joy of being a genuinely curious and thoughtful person. Each essay reads as if she is telling the story of how she developed her understanding of the topic. She meanders through analysis of books, articles, media, and her own life experiences to organically synthesize her arguments. The clarity of this meandering slowly unraveled my assumptions about the internet, feminism, capitalism, identity, and generally about the world being a better place in ten years.The book is by no means hopeless. However, her comprehensive approach to her topics, and her own admittance of being complicit and benefitting from phenomena she writes against, shows it is for our culture to move in a positive direction. But in my view, and probably Tolentino\’s, a person\’s conscious complicity in a problem is better than their denial or willful ignorance. The former mental state allows for the possibility of positive change while the latter prevents it.The towering achievement of this book is certainly the essay \”We Come from Old Virginia,\” a sprawling and haunting retelling of the discredited 2014 Rolling Stone article about a sexual assault at the University of Virginia. Tolentino combines the reflection of her own time as a student at UVA with a careful and thorough investigation of the journalist, her subject, and the history and cultural narratives that they were steeped in and unaware of. It\’s a harrowing tale of how people can be misled by their own stories. That\’s the theme of Trick Mirror really. Toletino\’s uses all of these stories to show that writing is \”either a way to shed self-delusions or develop them.\” This essay is probably the single best thing I\’ve read this year.I had to stop reading after it just to think it through. Then I had to plunge into a mind-dulling half-hour of social media to stop thinking about it.Tolentino offers portraits of the world that are antithetical to most of the Internet\’s frequently cheap and one-dimensional opinions. This is a book to keep in orbit.