The Monday Media Diet with Tom Vanderbilt

On research mode, the weekend FT, and revolving restaurants

I’m not exactly sure when I ran across Tom Vanderbilt (TV), but I assume it was around when he published Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do and made the controversial argument that more people should be “late mergers.” Since then, I’ve followed his work, which included one of my favorite articles on learning and parenting from the last few years: Learning Chess at 40: What I learned trying to keep up with my 4-year-old daughter at the royal game. Excited to have Tom as a guest for this week’s MMD. - Noah (NRB)

Tell us about yourself.

I’m a writer for many places (Outside, Wired, Travel & Leisure, etc.) and the author of various books, including Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do, most recently Beginners: The Joy and Transformative Power of Lifelong Learning, which is essentially about being prompted by my young daughter’s learning experiences to get off the couch and try tackle a bunch of new skills (a process that lives on beyond the book). My wife, Jancee Dunn, is also a writer (and occasionally my valued editor), and wrote an amazing book — pure speculative fiction — called How to Not Hate Your Husband After Kids. I started writing earnestly in college, both at The Daily Cardinal (the University of Wisconsin’s legendary student paper) and, in my courses, doing Roland Barthes-style essays. Both of those things had a huge influence on where I am today, writing-wise.

Describe your media diet. 

Mornings start with an online dip into the New York Times, Wall Street Journal,Washington Post, Guardian, etc. I’ll also check aggregator sites like Arts and Letters Dailyor The Browser, as well as blogs like Marginal Revolution, Granola Shotgun, or Streetsblog. I’m always checking into Kevin Lewis’ excellent roundup of academic research (Daily Findings) at The National Interest. And I get a whole slew of email newsletters, from people like Rob Walker, Ian Leslie, and Oliver Burkeman.

I tend to read more online when I’m in specific “research mode,” and I often spend hours each day in Elsevier’s “Science Direct” database. For more general edification, and pleasure, I prefer to read things in print.  So I get a whole slew of publications, everything from obvious choices like The Atlantic and Harper’s to The London Review of Books (I almost fell out of chair the other day reading Terry Castle on Patricia Highsmith); to more scholarly journals like The Hedgehog Review and The American Scholar; to specialist reads like Surfer’s Journal and Peloton (about real cycling, not the indoor spin bikes), to random stuff like Weird N.J.and New Scientist. I also have a weird attachment to trade magazines — I can always find something interesting in the most random publication, from Tunnelling Journalto Beverage Industry — as well as alumni magazines, even to schools I did not attend (pro tip: they’re a great source of stories for journos).

For my money, there is no better value in journalism than the Weekend Financial Times. For three bucks you get a whole trove of quality writing, and I’ve gone to some particular lengths to track its peachy print version when on the road. I feel like there’s a cult of Weekend FT diehards out there.

For listening, I tend to prefer old-school radio — BBC4 and BBC6, in particular

 — and podcasts that originate on radio, like Great Lives, Thinking Allowed, or Desert Island Discs. I always binge-listen Someone Knows Something, David Ridgen’s great cold-case podcast, produced by the CBC. On car trips we burn through Says You, the smartest game show around (if any producers are reading I think I’d be a great add to the lineup!). You’re Wrong Aboutis on pretty heavy repeat; not only are its hosts super smart, but Sarah Marshall has the best laugh in all of podcastdom, while Michael Hobbes’ reaction takes are worth the price of admission.  

For viewing, I rely heavily on Kanopy and Criterion, and I cycle through other channels like Sundance until I’ve exhausted shows like The Bureau. I spend way too much time on YouTube, everything from chess grandmaster Daniel Naroditsky’s wonderful blitz chess series; to Rebecca Vocal Athlete, a voice coach who ‘reacts’ to various popular singers; to Global Cycling Network (did I mention I’m way into cycling?)  

What’s the last great book you read?

Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets, by David Simon

What are you reading now?

Two very good new books about two great cities: Horizontal Vertigo, by Juan Villoro, and New Yorkers: A City and Its People in Our Time, by Craig Taylor.

What’s your reading strategy when you pick up a print copy of your favorite publication?

I like the “soft” stuff as a sort of appetizer, so I often find myself, in publications ranging from The New Yorker to Monocle, reading from the back to the front.

Who should everyone be reading that they’re not?

Your local newspaper.

What is the best non-famous app you love on your phone? 

Smule. It’s online karaoke, you sing with random people around the world, and I’m addicted. You can find me there as “adultbeginner” if you’re so inclined.

Plane or train?

I’ve been lucky to have some fairly memorable plane trips — like a “round the world by private jet” trip I once reported on, but even just a good train trip somehow feels special to me. Wherever people grouse about their train service — as in the U.K. — I get on board and, compared to what I’m used to, you basically had me with the first tea trolley that passes. Nowadays I’d be happy for just about any form of transportation that took me anywhere substantial.

What is one place everyone should visit? 

Singapore, because it’s fascinating and it seems like a laboratory for the future.

Tell us the story of a rabbit hole you fell deep into. 

I’ve fallen into some fairly literal holes, like when I was obsessed, a few decades ago, with America’s secret Cold War infrastructure. Or the time when I wanted to visit every revolving restaurant I could (including one, strangely, in Havana); I wrote about it for Metropolis Magazine, though sadly there’s no link. I’ve gotten pretty deep into chess — which is a pool in which there is no bottom. In the last few weeks, always looking for new pandemic-friendly activities, I’ve been playing the video game Fortnite as part of a group called ‘Fortnite Over Forty.’ I’m a lifetime gamer, but I only got back into it recently when I started playing with my daughter, to make sure it was an OK environment (I wrote about this for Wired). She eventually got bored, but I got hooked, and found this curious community of older adults who play when their kids go to bed. 

Thanks for reading,

Noah (NRB) & Colin (CJN) & Tom (TV)

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