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Arts and Letters

Artificial Frontier

Whole Earth: The Many Lives of Stewart Brand
John Markoff
Penguin, pp. 416, $32.00


In the middle of March 2020, when Washington and Maryland instituted what was promised to be a two-week lockdown, my wife and I left for a stay with her family in the country. We weren’t the only ones. Maybe some ancestral memory of Decameron days pushed people out of the city, the sense that the air will be clearer out beyond, that you can outrun the pathogen; maybe it was just the oppressive awareness that Washington, a city built to be a ruin, is a bad place to be during an international disaster. At any rate, we left.

I brought books. Being and Time, the Rule, C.D. Buck’s grammar of Oscan and Umbrian, and Rudolf Helm’s Teubner Golden Ass—an edition since superseded by Zimmerman’s, with good reason. I had bought the Apuleius at Raven Books in Cambridge while still in college; I decided with a period of slowed or stopped social life ahead of me, it was time to get to know Augustine’s favorite book.

As I flipped through the slim blue octavo, something that looked like a business card fell out of the middle of Book VIII. I picked it up and read, royal blue on ivory,


you lose interplanetary assoc.

earth sector

I turned it over.


you lose interplanetary assoc.

earth sector

It was a Saturday after the nervy optimism of the initial two weeks had passed. The real unemployment number was sniffing and growling at twenty-five percent, and quiet desperation underwrote every headline. (Do you want to see true fear? Look at those pictures of Steve Mnuchin beseeching Congress to send a restless and idle people money. Those are the eyes of a man who knows rope and lampposts are plentiful in this country.) The ailing startup I had been nursing for twelve hours a day had begun to make the death rattle—“How much of a pay cut can you take this month?”—and my wife was in the family way. In short, things large and small seemed to be going poorly. This calling card from—whom? what?—falling out of an occult and neoplatonic text seemed portentous—probably not in a good way.

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