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‘The 25 Greatest Essay Collections of All Time’

I have been reading far more essay collections over the last couple of years, and wondered which collections were seen as the pinnacles of an already great genre.  I found the following list on Flavorwire (see here), and thought I would type it up, along with a blurb, and see how many I have made part of my reading life to date.  Pitifully, the only one which I have read is Woolf’s The Common Reader!

1. The Book of My Lives by Aleksandar Hemon
15793567Aleksandar Hemon’s lives begin in Sarajevo, a small, blissful city where a young boy’s life is consumed with street soccer with the neighborhood kids, resentment of his younger sister, and trips abroad with his engineer-cum-beekeeper father. Here, a young man’s life is about poking at the pretensions of the city’s elders with American music, bad poetry, and slightly better journalism. And then, his life in Chicago: watching from afar as war breaks out in Sarajevo and the city comes under siege, no way to return home; his parents and sister fleeing Sarajevo with the family dog, leaving behind all else they had ever known; and Hemon himself starting a new life, his own family, in this new city.  And yet this is not really a memoir. The Book of My Lives, Hemon’s first book of nonfiction, defies convention and expectation. It is a love song to two different cities; it is a heartbreaking paean to the bonds of family; it is a stirring exhortation to go out and play soccer—and not for the exercise. It is a book driven by passions but built on fierce intelligence, devastating experience, and sharp insight. And like the best narratives, it is a book that will leave you a different reader—a different person, with a new way of looking at the world—when you’ve finished. For fans of Hemon’s fiction, The Book of My Lives is simply indispensable; for the uninitiated, it is the perfect introduction to one of the great writers of our time.

 

2. Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion
‘The first nonfiction work by one of the most distinctive prose stylists of our era, “Slouching Towards Bethlehem “remains, forty years after its first publication, the essential portrait of America particularly California in the sixties. It focuses on such subjects as John Wayne and Howard Hughes, growing up a girl in California, ruminating on the nature of good and evil in a Death Valley motel room, and, especially, the essence of San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury, the heart of the counterculture.’

 

3. Pulphead by John Jeremiah Sullivan 9780374532901
‘A sharp-eyed, uniquely humane tour of America’s cultural landscape from high to low to lower than low by the award-winning young star of the literary nonfiction world.In “Pulphead, “John Jeremiah Sullivan takes us on an exhilarating tour of our popular, unpopular, and at times completely forgotten culture. Simultaneously channeling the gonzo energy of Hunter S. Thompson and the wit and insight of Joan Didion, Sullivan shows us with a laidback, erudite Southern charm that’s all his own how we really (no, really) live now. In his native Kentucky, Sullivan introduces us to Constantine Rafinesque, a nineteenth-century polymath genius who concocted a dense, fantastical prehistory of the New World. Back in modern times, Sullivan takes us to the Ozarks for a Christian rock festival; to Florida to meet the alumni and straggling refugees of MTV’s “Real World, “who’ve generated their own self-perpetuating economy of minor celebrity; and all across the South on the trail of the blues. He takes us to Indiana to investigate the formative years of Michael Jackson and Axl Rose and then to the Gulf Coast in the wake of Katrina and back again as its residents confront the BP oil spill. Gradually, a unifying narrative emerges, a story about this country that we’ve never heard told this way. It’s like a fun-house hall-of-mirrors tour: Sullivan shows us who we are in ways we’ve never imagined to be true. Of course we don’t know whether to laugh or cry when faced with this reflection it’s our inevitable sob-guffaws that attest to the power of Sullivan’s work’

 

4. The Boys of My Youth by Jo Ann Beard
‘Rarely does the debut of a new writer garner such attention & acclaim. The excitement began the moment “The Fourth State of Matter,” one of the fourteen extraordinary personal narratives in this book, appeared in the pages of the New Yorker. It increased when the author received a prestigious Whiting Foundation Award in November 1997, & it continued as the hardcover edition of The Boys of My Youth sold out its first printing even before publication. The author writes with perfect pitch as she takes us through one woman’s life – from childhood to marriage & beyond – & memorably captures the collision of youthful longing & the hard intransigences of time & fate.’

 

97803160133215. Consider the Lobster by David Foster Wallace
‘Do lobsters feel pain? Did Franz Kafka have a funny bone? What is John Updike’s deal, anyway? And what happens when adult video starlets meet their fans in person? David Foster Wallace answers these questions and more in essays that are also enthralling narrative adventures. Whether covering the three-ring circus of a vicious presidential race, plunging into the wars between dictionary writers, or confronting the World’s Largest Lobster Cooker at the annual Maine Lobster Festival, Wallace projects a quality of thought that is uniquely his and a voice as powerful and distinct as any in American letters.’

 

6. Notes of a Native Son by James Baldwin
‘Written during the 1940s and early 1950s, when Baldwin was only in his twenties, the essays collected in “Notes of a Native Son “capture a view of black life and black thought at the dawn of the civil rights movement and as the movement slowly gained strength through the words of one of the most captivating essayists and foremost intellectuals of that era. Writing as an artist, activist, and social critic, Baldwin probes the complex condition of being black in America. With a keen eye, he examines everything from the significance of the protest novel to the motives and circumstances of the many black expatriates of the time, from his home in The Harlem Ghetto to a sobering Journey to Atlanta. “Notes of a Native Son”inaugurated Baldwin as one of the leading interpreters of the dramatic social changes erupting in the United States in the twentieth century, and many of his observations have proven almost prophetic. His criticism on topics such as the paternalism of white progressives or on his own friend Richard Wright s work is pointed and unabashed. He was also one of the few writing on race at the time who addressed the issue with a powerful mixture of outrage at the gross physical and political violence against black citizens and measured understanding of their oppressors, which helped awaken a white audience to the injustices under their noses. Naturally, this combination of brazen criticism and unconventional empathy for white readers won Baldwin as much condemnation as praise. “Notes” is the book that established Baldwin s voice as a social critic, and it remains one of his most admired works. The essays collected here create a cohesive sketch of black America and reveal an intimate portrait of Baldwin s own search for identity as an artist, as a black man, and as an American.’

 

7. Naked by David Sedaris 9780349119779
‘A riotous collection of memoirs which explores the absurd hilarity of modern life and creates a wickedly incisive portrait of an all-too-familiar world. It takes Sedaris from his humiliating bout with obsessive behaviour in ‘A Plague of Tics’ to the title story, where he is finally forced to face his naked self in the company of lunatics. At this soulful and moving moment, he brushes cigarette ashes from his pubic hair and wonders what it all means. This remarkable journey into his own life follows a path of self-effacement and a lifelong search for identity leaving himself both under suspicion and over dressed.’

 

8. Against Interpretation by Susan Sontag
‘ Against Interpretation was Susan Sontag’s first collection of essays and made her name as one of the most incisive thinkers of our time. Sontag was among the first critics to write about the intersection between ‘high’ and ‘low’ art forms, and to give them equal value as valid topics, shown here in her epoch-making pieces ‘Notes on Camp’ and ‘Against Interpretation’. Here too are impassioned discussions of Sartre, Camus, Simone Weil, Godard, Beckett, Levi-Strauss, science-fiction movies, psychoanalysis and contemporary religious thought. Originally published in 1966, this collection has never gone out of print and has been a major influence on generations of readers, and the field of cultural criticism, ever since.’

 

97801560277869. The Common Reader by Virginia Woolf
‘This is Virginia Woolf’s first collection of essays, published in 1925. In them, she attempts to see literature from the point of view of the ‘common reader’ – someone whom she, with Dr Johnson, distinguished from the critic and the scholar. She read, and wrote, as an outsider: a woman set to school in her father’s library, denied the educational privileges of her male siblings – and with no fixed view of what constitutes ‘English Literature’. What she produced is an eccentric and unofficial literary and social history from the fourteenth to the twentieth century, with an excursion to ancient Greece thrown in. She investigates medieval England, tsarist Russia, Elizabethan playwrights, Victorian novelists and modern essayists. When she published this book Woolf’s fame as a novelist was already established: now she was hailed as a brilliant interpretative critic. Here, she addresses her ‘common reader’ in the remarkable prose and with all the imagination and gaiety that are the stamp of her genius.’

 

10. Teaching a Stone to Talk by Annie Dillard
‘In Teaching a Stone to Talk, Annie Dillard fixes her entrancing gaze and powerful sense of wonder on the natural world. Whether watching a sublime lunar eclipse or locking eyes with a wild weasel, Dillard captures the grand and miniature miracles of our universe. Annie Dillard is one of the most respected and influential figures in contemporary non-fiction and winner of the Pulitzer Prize. With Teaching a Stone to Talk, she illuminates the world around us with a new and glowing light.’

 

11. Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Black Man by Henry Louis Gates Jr 9780679776666
‘In these stunning portraits of prominent black American men, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., takes us behind closed doors and into the lives, minds, and experiences of some remarkable people to reveal, through stories of individual lives, much about American society and race today. James Baldwin, Colin Powell, Harry Belafonte, Bill T. Jones, Louis Farrakhan, Anatole Broyard, Albert Murray – all these men came from modest circumstances and all achieved preeminence. These men and others speak of their lives with candor and intimacy, and what emerges from this portfolio of influential men is a strikingly varied and profound set of ideas about what it means to be a black man in America today.’

 

12. Otherwise Known as the Human Condition by Geoff Dyer
‘Geoff Dyer has earned the devotion of passionate fans on both sides of the Atlantic through his wildly inventive, romantic novels as well as several brilliant, uncategorizable works of nonfiction. All the while he has been writing some of the wittiest, most incisive criticism we have on an astonishing array of subjects music, literature, photography, and travel journalism that, in Dyer’s expert hands, becomes a kind of irresistible self-reportage. “Otherwise Known as the Human Condition “collects twenty-five years of essays, reviews, and misadventures. Here he is pursuing the shadow of Camus in Algeria and remembering life on the dole in Brixton in the 1980s; reflecting on Richard Avedon and Ruth Orkin, on the status of jazz and the wonderous Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, on the sculptor ZadKine and the saxophonist David Murray (in the same essay), on his heroes Rebecca West and Ryszard Kapuscinski, on haute couture and sex in hotels. Whatever he writes about, his responses never fail to surprise. For Dyer there is no division between the reflective work of the critic and the novelist’s commitment to lived experience: they are mutually illuminating ways to sharpen our perceptions. His is the rare body of work that manages to both frame our world and enlarge it.’

 

13. Art and Ardor by Cynthia Ozick
‘Among the pieces included in this collection of wide-ranging essays are two extended essays on Edith Wharton and Virginia Woolf and analyses of the work of contemporaries including Updike and Capote.’

 

978081668079514. No More Nice Girls by Ellen Willis
‘With characteristic intelligence, wit, and feminist insight, Ellen Willis addresses democracy as she sees it: a commitment to individual freedom and egalitarian self-government in every area of social, economic, and cultural life. Moving between scholarly and down-to-earth activist writing styles, Willis confronts the conservative backlash that has slowly eroded democratic ideals and advances of the 1960s as well as the internal debates that have frequently splintered the left.’

 

15. The War Against Cliche by Martin Amis
‘Like John Updike, Martin Amis is the pre-eminent novelist-critic of his generation. The War Against Cliche is a selection of his reviews and essays over the past quarter-century. It contains pieces on Cervantes, Milton, Donne, Coleridge, Jane Austen, Dickens, Kafka, Philip Larkin, Joyce, Waugh, Lowry, Nabokov, F. R. Leavis, V. S. Pritchett, William Burroughs, Anthony Burgess, Angus Wilson, Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, Shiva and V. S. Naipaul, Kurt Vonnegut, Iris Murdoch, Norman Mailer, Gore Vidal, Don DeLillo, Elmore Leonard, Michael Crichton, Thomas Harris – and John Updike. Other subjects include chess, nuclear weapons, masculinity, screen censorship, juvenile violence, Andy Warhol, Hillary Clinton, and Margaret Thatcher.’

 

16. Cultural Amnesia by Clive James 9780330481755
‘Organized from A through Z, and containing over 100 essays, Cultural Amnesia is the ultimate guide to the twentieth century. ‘This is a beautiful book. James proves himself not only to be in possession of a towering intellect, but a singular ability to communicate his passions’ Observer ‘Witty, insightful and unashamedly erudite, the book is a superb miscellany of 20th-century cultural and political subjects’ The Sunday Times ‘Over the past forty years James has been scribbling notes in the margins of the books he has read …and this is the result.’

 

17. I Feel Bad About My Neck: And Other Thoughts on Being a Woman by Nora Ephron
‘Academy Award-winning screenwriter and director Nora Ephron (“When Harry Met Sally”, “Heartburn”, “Sleepless in Seattle”, “You’ve Got Mail”) turns her sharp wit on to her own life. It includes: Never marry a man you wouldn’t want to be divorced from; if the shoe doesn’t fit in the shoe store, it’s never going to fit; when your children are teenagers, it’s important to have a dog so that someone in the house is happy to see you; anything you think is wrong with your body at the age of thirty-five you will be nostalgic for by the age of forty-five; the empty nest is underrated; and if only one third of your clothes are mistakes, you’re ahead of the game.’

 

978085789258418. Arguably by Christopher Hitchens
‘Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011) was a matchless writer, debater and humanist. Throughout his life he shone the light of reason and truth into the eyes of charlatans and hucksters, exposing falsehood and decrying hypocrisy wherever he found it. With his passing, the world has lost a great soul, the written word one of its finest advocates and those who stand for freedom everywhere have lost one of their clearest voices. Arguably collects Hitchens’ writing on politics, literature and religion when he was at the zenith of his career; it is the indispensible companion to the finest English essayist since Orwell.’

 

19. The Solace of Open Spaces by Gretel Erlich
‘Writing of hermits, cowboys, changing seasons, and the wind, Ehrlich draws us into her personal relationship with this “planet of Wyoming” she has come to call home. She captures the incredible beauty and the demanding harshness of natural forces in these remote reaches of the West, and the depth, tenderness and humor of the quirky souls who live there.Ehrlich, a former filmmaker and urbanite, presents in these essays a fresh and vibrant tribute to the new life she has chosen.’

 

20. The Braindead Megaphone by George Saunders 9781594482564
‘The breakout book from “the funniest writer in America”–not to mention an official “Genius”–his first nonfiction collection ever. George Saunders’s first foray into nonfiction is comprised of essays on literature, travel, and politics. At the core of this unique collection are Saunders’s travel essays based on his trips to seek out the mysteries of the “Buddha Boy” of Nepal; to attempt to indulge in the extravagant pleasures of Dubai; and to join the exploits of the minutemen at the Mexican border. Saunders expertly navigates the works of Mark Twain, Kurt Vonnegut, and Esther Forbes, and leads the reader across the rocky political landscape of modern America. Emblazoned with his trademark wit and singular vision, Saunders’s endeavor into the art of the essay is testament to his exceptional range and ability as a writer and thinker. ‘

 

21. Against Joie de Vivre by Philippe Lopate
‘This rejoinder to the cult of hedonism and forced conviviality moves from a critique of the false sentimentalization of children and the elderly to a sardonic look at the social rite of the dinner party, on to a moving personal testament to the “hungry soul.” Lopate’s special gift is his ability to give us not only sophisticated cultural commentary in a dazzling collection of essays but also to bring to his subjects an engaging honesty and openness that invite us to experience the world along with him. Also included here are Lopate’s inspiring account of his production of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya with a group of preadolescents, a look at the tradition of the personal essay, and a soul-searching piece on the suicide of a schoolteacher and its effect on his students and fellow teachers. By turns humorous, learned, celebratory, and elegiac, Lopate displays a keen intelligence and a flair for language that turn bits of common, everyday life into resonant narrative. This collection maintains a conversational charm while taking the contemporary personal essay to a new level of complexity and candor.’

 

978160358337422. Sex and the River Styx by Edward Hoagland
‘Called the best essayist of his time by luminaries like Philip Roth, John Updike, and Edward Abbey, Edward Hoagland brings readers his ultimate collection. In Sex and the River Styx, the author’s sharp eye and intense curiosity shine through in essays that span his childhood exploring the woods in his rural Connecticut, his days as a circus worker, and his travels the world over in his later years. Here, we meet Hoagland at his best: traveling to Kampala, Uganda, to meet a family he’d been helping support only to find a divide far greater than he could have ever imagined; reflecting on aging, love, and sex in a deeply personal, often surprising way; and bringing us the wonder of wild places, alongside the disparity of losing them, and always with a twist that brings the genre of nature writing to vastly new heights. His keen dissection of social realities and the human spirit will both startle and lure readers as they meet African matriarchs, Tibetan yak herders, circus aerialists, and the strippers who entertained college boys in 1950s Boston. Says Howard Frank Mosher in his foreword, the self-described rhapsodist “could fairly be considered our last, great transcendentalist.’

 

23. Changing my Mind by Zadie Smith
‘Changing My Mind is a collection of essays by Zadie Smith on literature, cinema, art – and everything in between. ‘A supremely good read. Smith writes about reading and writing with such infectious zeal and engaging accessibility that it makes you want to turn up at her house and demand tutoring’ Dazed and Confused ‘Alarmingly good’ Metro ‘Striding with open hearted zest and eloquence between fiction (from EM Forster to David Foster Wallace) and travel, movies and comedy, family and community in a self-portrait that charts the evolution of a formidable talent. In lovely elegiac pieces on her late father Harvey, D-Day veteran and Tony Hancock fan, Smith also delivers some of the most affecting autobiographical writing in any form’ – Independent, Books of the Year ‘Brilliant. She’s friendly and conspiratorial, voicing the kind of clever theories we could imagine ourselves holding if only we were as articulate as Zadie Smith’ – Vogue ‘Fascinating. Smith has the gift of showing you how she reads and thinks; watching her do it makes you feel smarter and more observant. Her account of her struggles as an author may be the most authentic, unglamorous description of novel-writing ever put on paper’ – Time’

 

24. My Misspent Youth by Meghan Daum 9781250067654
‘Meghan Daum is one of the most celebrated nonfiction writers of her generation, widely recognised for her fresh, provocative approach with which she unearths the hidden fault lines in the American landscape. From her well-remembered New Yorker essays about the financial demands of big city ambition and the ethereal, strangely old fashioned allure of cyber relationships to her dazzlingly hilarious riff in Harper’s about musical passions that give way to middle brow paraphernalia, Daum delves into the center of things while closely examining the detritus that spills out along the way. With precision and well balanced irony, Daum implicates herself as readily as she does the targets that fascinate and horrify her.’

 

25. The White Album by Joan Didion
‘First published in 1979, The White Album records indelibly the upheavals and aftermaths of the 1960s. Examining key events, figures, and trends of the era including Charles Manson, the Black Panthers, and the shopping mall through the lens of her own spiritual confusion, Joan Didion helped to define mass culture as we now understand it. Written with a commanding sureness of tone and linguistic precision, The White Album is a central text of American reportage and a classic of American autobiography.’

 

How many of these collections have you read?  Which pique your interest the most?  Which are your favourite essay collections?

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American Literature Month: ‘Giovanni’s Room’ by James Baldwin **** (Classics Club #1)

I actually read Giovanni’s Room back in February, but thought that it would be a fitting start to my American Literature Month reviews.  My interest in this 150-page novel, which was first published in 1956 in the USA and 1957 in Great Britain, was piqued after seeing Yamini, Katie and Sarah all rave about it on BookTube.

The book’s blurb writes of how ‘this story of a fated love triangle has become a landmark in gay writing, but its appeal is broader.  James Baldwin caused outrage as a black author writing about white homosexuals, yet for him the issues of race, sexuality and personal freedom were eternally intertwined’.  The introduction to the Penguin Modern Classics edition which I borrowed from the library has been written by Caryl Phillips.  Whilst I did not read this all of the way through before I began Giovanni’s Room, due to plot spoilers being given away, Phillips, quite rightly, calls the novel ‘audacious… remarkable… elegant and courageous’. 38462

The first person narrative perspective which Baldwin makes use of here is entirely engrossing; our protagonist, David, feels like a tangible being from the very first page.  The initial chilling paragraph drew me in immediately: ‘I stand at the window of this great house in the South of France as night falls, the night which is leading me to the most terrible morning of my life…  I am too various to be trusted.  If this were not so I would not be alone in this house tonight…  And Giovanni would not be about to perish, sometime between this night and this morning, on the guillotine…  I was beginning to think of Giovanni dying – where Giovanni had been there would be nothing, nothing forever’.

David meets Giovanni, a barman, whilst living in Paris, penniless, away from his fiancee Hella, and having just been thrown out of his hotel.  The pair soon become infatuated with one another, and a passionate romance ensues, the majority of which takes place within Giovanni’s small, untidy room: ‘I scarcely know how to describe that room.  It became, in a way, every room I had ever been in and every room I find myself in hereafter will remind me of Giovanni’s room…  It still seems to me that I spent a lifetime there’. The Paris in which the wider story takes place fades away entirely in the presence of Giovanni’s bedroom; its importance for the pair is paramount.

As David tenderly recounts: ‘I think we connected the instant that we met.  And remain connected still, in spite of our later separation de corps, despite the fact that Giovanni will be nothing soon in unhallowed ground near Paris.  Until I die there will be those moments, moments seeming to rise up out of the ground like Macbeth’s witches, when his face will come before me, that face in all its changes, when the exact timbre of his voice and tricks of his speech will nearly burst my ears, when his smell will overpower my nostrils’.  David’s acquaintance, Jacques, has some of the most powerful lines in the story.  He tells David, ‘”Love him…  Love him and let him love you.  Do you think anything else under heaven really matters?  And how long, at the best, can it last, since you are both men and still have everywhere to go?”‘

Baldwin is marvellous at showing how decisions wrangle with David’s conscience throughout.  At first, he says, ‘Each day he invited me to witness how he had changed, how love had changed him, how he worked and song and cherished me.  I was in a terrible confusion.  Sometimes, I thought, but this is your life.  Stop fighting it.  Stop fighting.  Or I thought, but I am happy.  And he loves me.  I am safe.  Sometimes, when he was not near me, I thought, I will never let him touch me again.  Then, when he touched me, I thought it doesn’t matter, it is only the body, it will soon be over.  When it was over I lay in the dark and listened to his breathing and dreamed of the touch of hands, of Giovanni’s hands, or anybody’s hands, hands which would have the power to crush me and make me whole again’.  Then, David goes on to describe the way in which, ‘I saw myself, sharply, as a wanderer, an adventurer, rocking through the world, unanchored.  I looked at Giovanni’s face, which did not help me.  He belonged to this strange city, which did not belong to me.  I began to see that, while what was happening to me was not so strange as it would have comforted me to believe, yet it was strange beyond belief.  It was not really so strange, so unprecedented, though voices deep within me boomed, For shame!  For shame!  that I should be so abruptly, so hideously entangled with a boy; what was strange was that this was but one tiny aspect of the dreadful human tabgle, occurring everywhere, without end, forever.’  David feels intense guilt over being with Giovanni: ‘And no matter what I was doing, another me sat in my belly, absolutely cold with terror over the question of my life’.

Baldwin has packed every single scene with emotion, and the incredibly human elements of his plot rise to prominence throughout: ‘… for that moment I really loved Giovanni, who had never seemed more beautiful than he was that afternoon.  And, watching his face, I realized that it meant much to me that I could make his face so bright…  I felt myself flow towards him, as a river rushes when the ice breaks up…  The beast which Giovanni had awakened in me would never go to sleep again; but one day I would not be with Giovanni any more.  And would I then, like all the others, find myself turning and following all kinds of boys down God knows what dark avenues, into what dark places?’

Giovanni’s Room is an incredibly sad and poignant work.  When, after their three-month separation, Hella returns to Paris, David denies his feelings for Giovanni, as well as his homosexual leanings, in favour of a ‘safe’ future as a married man: ‘She smelled of the wind and the sea and of space and I felt in her marvellously living body the possibility of legitimate surrender’.  The whole has been beautifully written, and is constructed of such cleverly crafted, taut sentences.  The prose is to be savoured; whilst the novel is relatively short, it does take a while to get through in consequence.  Everything has been gorgeously evoked, and Baldwin is incredibly perceptive as to how easy it is for someone to spiral into despair, particularly where matters of the heart are involved.

Such a work smacks of importance, not just for the way in which Baldwin portrays homosexuality, but also due to his writing about such a taboo subject during the turbulent 1950s.  The structure of Giovanni’s Room, and the way in which Baldwin handles the sensitive material, is elegant, and the entirety of the novel is both bold and powerful.  Giovanni’s Room is a novel which cannot – and should not – be easily forgotten.

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