A Conversation With New York Times Book Critic Molly Young
Photography by Liam Goslett
I love talking to Molly Young. There is genuinely no one like her. She is interested, curious, thoughtful, and well-spoken. She can ping-pong between topics naturally. In forty-five minutes, we covered the ins and outs of low-level gambling, skill vs. luck, surfing, people-watching, publishing, and how to read more in our perpetually distracted society. I am sure you will want to hear more from her, so follow her book criticism at The New York Times and her newsletter, The Life and Errors of Molly Young.
Chris Black: I wanted to talk about your surfing. It's something that a lot of my friends are trying to get me into as a part-time California resident, but I'm not getting the appeal. I understand being one with nature, et cetera, but what hooked you in?
Molly Young: Every game is a proportion of luck and skill. Chess is 100% skill and 0% luck, but Yahtzee is 70% luck and 30% skill. The games I like best, like backgammon, have a specific ratio, like 60% skill and 40% luck. Surfing is a proportion of skill and luck that I really enjoy. It's higher on the skill end, but there are always a lot of random variables you can't control that are fun to navigate. It's a good sport for someone who likes to gamble. It's like skiing, which is the only other thing I've done where the payoff was actually euphoric rather than just satisfying. If you score a goal in soccer, it's satisfying, but if you surf a really fun wave, it actually feels like you're on a drug of some kind.
CB: I didn't know you were such a gamer.
MY: I'm not a gamer, but I really love gambling. If you like chasing highs but don't necessarily want to do drugs, it's a great route to go down.
CB: I don't gamble. But I love spending money, so the appeal of, "I just blew a thousand dollars, and it feels both good and bad" makes sense to me. Have you won or lost a substantial sum of money, or do you keep the amounts low?
MY: I keep the amounts low. I'm pretty good at stepping out when I’m ahead. But I do love lotto scratch-offs. The only way I can motivate myself to do unpleasant tasks or demanding intellectual endeavors is by promising myself rewards, and one of the ways that I reward myself is by letting myself get a scratch-off ticket at the end of a hard day's work. I have a stack of them right now.
CB: So, 10 to 15 winning tickets, what's the total payout on those?
MY: A solid $41. I store them up so I can redeem them all at once.
CB: I always take a break for an afternoon coffee and take a little stroll on the block to see the people and re-energize, but I've never heard of scratch-offs as an option, and I'm interested in exploring this.
MY: The fact that you've managed your tolerance in such a way that a walk counts as a treat is impressive. You don't want to avoid getting on the hedonic treadmill where you have to keep escalating.
CB: I need a lot of time just to sit. I really need to sit on a bench and stare at the street for an hour a day. It really helps me recalibrate.
MY: Are you dopamine fasting when you do that? Are you purposely making yourself bored?
CB: No, one of my greatest passions is people-watching. I truly love it, and that's part of the reason I like to get to the airport early. You get to see the varying levels of what people consider normal. Whereas, in New York, everyone's a fucking freak. In LA, everyone's a fucking freak. But when you go to an airport in Atlanta, it’s a true cross-section of the world.
MY: I think any transportation hub has great people watching. A Greyhound bus station in Providence, Rhode Island… there’s nothing like it.
CB: We should also talk about reading. In general, I find the distraction of my computer and phone to be too strong. I've implemented some rules like If I'm taking a flight and it's under three hours, I don't pay for the internet. I read a book. But as someone who reads professionally, are there any tips and tricks you could give me to really focus and take in some words?
MY: First of all, I think it's good that you give yourself a taste of the internet-free life. I lock my phone in a plastic box with a timer, and lock my phone between four and six hours at a time. I worked my way up from half an hour. But you realize that you don't actually need it. You shouldn't be checking your email so frequently that you notice when you get a new message. You should be letting 40 to 50 messages come in between checking, so you’re reminded of how annoying it is, how stupid most of your emails are, and how unnecessary it is to respond. So you can build up your tolerance for focusing. Also the success rate for a book is so much higher than reading an article or even reading Twitter, where you’re glancing at things where only one in a hundred is any good. But if someone has spent the time to create a book, there's a much higher chance that it'll be worth your time.
CB: It’s someone's life's work. And it’s gone through so many phases and edits that it’s the best possible version of itself, according to the people who have brought it to life.
MY: Also, it helps to filter your reading. I’ll filter my movie watching through really specific lenses, and for a month I'll only watch things starring Ray Liotta from 1990 to 1999. But I’ll place the same constraints on my reading where I'll only read translated Russian literature from 1900 to 1960. As much as you can hone in on an obsessive little cranny, just to get a foothold, it helps. Otherwise, it just feels overwhelming.
CB: You and Teddy, your husband, do a lot of publishing. Do you find it easy to work together and to get your work out into the world? Or is it more contentious because you're keeping it real with each other?
MY: We work together really well. I think it helps that we both have a lot of experience working with clients. As you know, that requires a certain amount of emotional intelligence, and you have to absent yourself of ego and throw away your territorial instincts. The rules for dealing with clients are the same for having a friendship or partner. You just have to listen a lot. We treat each other with respect. Also, he’s just so talented, and he has an amazing eye. And he knows so many things that I don't know, and I trust his taste. So the dangerous things that can happen when you collaborate with someone creatively are just not there.
CB: Do you have a book in you? Is that your plan, or will it simply happen when it happens?
MY: Often I will read a book and think, “this didn't need to be a book, it could have been a 12,000-word article.” Finding the right length for something is always really key. So far, I haven't found a topic that merits five years of my life and 400 pages.
CB: "Is it a tweet, is it an article, or is it a book?" It's a fraught industry.
MY: It's an old industry.
CB: But I love it because it's one of the only industries left with some real gatekeeping. And it needs that more than most. It's a platform that I'm planning to run on in 2024.
MY: I feel the same way. We do love gatekeepers around here. I think that people should be specialists. I think people naturally are. Kids get fixated on really specific subjects, and then it’s schooled out of them, and they're forced to become useless generalists. But I always look for people who are weirdly interested in specific things, and then I try to download everything I can from them.
CB: I usually just like people to be hot and rich, but your approach might be better. It’s a more pure outlook. But I subscribe to your newsletter because you know more than me. This is what you do, this is what you put your time into, and there's an opportunity for me to learn.
MY: I look forward to educating you about books, Chris. And I hope you try gambling.