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Quan Millz Was the Biggest Mystery on TikTok. Until Now

Quan Millz Was the Biggest Mystery on TikTok. Until Now

Reaction videos started flooding TikTok this summer, all of them with the same question: Who is Quan Millz? 

The answer varied depending on the person, but each new response carried with it some variation of curiosity, shock, and excitement. “If you enjoy watching shows like Paternity Court,” one TikTok user commented, “or old school Maury Povich, if you’re old enough to remember Jenny Jones and Ricki Lake, you too might enjoy this reading experience.” Read another caption: “Quan Millz is so unhinged we must protect him at all costs.” 

There seemed to be no corner of the internet Millz had not reached. On the podcast Sleeping In Mom’s Bed, rapper Danny Brown recited some of his favorite books to host Christina B. “I want to collect every book this motherfucker got,” he said, laughing, as they scrolled through Millz’s eye-popping, sometimes X-rated book titles. There was Pregnant By My Husband’s Granddaddy and Tax Season Thot. Also, Hoe Yo Coochie Stank: A Bacterial Vaginosis Love Story. And who could forget, Let Me Smell Your Dick. “All Black men have been through these things,” Brown joked. “I don’t even really want to read them. I’m gonna start collecting them like Pokémon cards.”

Brown’s point being this: Very little is known about Millz except for the fact of his prolific output. He is an author who has self-published dozens of books but, until very recently, has evaded real mainstream attention. The bulk of Millz’s books are available on Amazon for less than $1, and fall squarely within the subgenre of street lit, a category of American literature known for its controversial and confrontational realism of Black life in the “inner city.”

Buzz around Millz’s work started in July, when a TikTok user by the name of @justdesean posted a video to his page. He wondered if his 223,000 followers knew who Millz was. At the time, most people outside the very-insular worlds of street lit, urban fiction, and Black romance hadn’t. “I want to know which book you’re likely to pick up and read,” he said. “Are you braced?” What followed became the discussion of group chats and comment sections for weeks to come. The books he highlighted are some of Millz’s most polarizing titles, like Becky Put Raisins in the Potato Salad, to which @justdesean exclaimed, “Look at the potato salad! Hell no!” When he got to Old Thot Next Door—if social media is any indication, Millz’s most recognized title—he wondered, “Whose grandma is that?” The video exploded across TikTok, seemingly reaching Twitter and Instagram feeds overnight, and has since garnered more than 2.1 million views.

As online chatter intensified, the mystery of Millz’s identity persisted. Who was he?

Raised in Miami, Millz first started writing in 2014 on the advice of a friend, his former business partner and coauthor N’Dia Rae. (Rae is also a fairly prolific author in the genre whose Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Side Chicks trilogy, a story about sisterhood and the loss of trust, was described on Goodreads as “a page-turning jackpot.”) He wasn’t that far out of college, and was working various odd jobs. Rae convinced him that this was an easy way to earn passive income. Millz dabbled in romance writing at first, writing under a different pen name, but found a more energized readership in street lit. In 2017, he officially went solo, carving out a unique niche in a genre already overflowing with stories of visceral originality. 

Is Listening to Audiobooks Really Reading?

Is Listening to Audiobooks Really Reading?

“I listen to a lot of books on audio. It works for me. But certain more literary friends of mine say it doesn’t quite count as reading. Part of me wants to read more, but I find it much easier to listen. What do you think? Should I care?”

—Easy Listening

Dear Easy,

I wouldn’t put too much stock in what your “literary” friends say; they sound like bores. When it comes down to it, people who think about reading in terms of what “counts”—those who piously log their daily reading metrics and tally up the titles they’ve consumed on Goodreads—don’t seem to actually enjoy books all that much. Their moralistic gloom is evident in the extent to which reading has come to resemble exercise, with readers tracking their word-count metrics, trying to improve their speed, and joining clubs to keep them accountable.

While some disciples of this culture are quick to dismiss audiobooks as a shortcut, they cannot seem to agree on why, exactly, listening is an inferior form of engagement. Some cite studies that have shown people who listen to books retain less than those who read them, which is bound up with how tempting it is to do other things while listening. (As easy as it is to multitask with audiobooks, the form does make it harder to return, after a spell of distraction, to the passage where your mind started to wander.) Others insist that audiobooks eliminate the reader’s responsibility to interpret things like irony, tone, and inflection, given that the person recording does the work of conveying emotion. According to this rather tenuous logic, listening to audiobooks is inferior precisely because it is easier—because it lacks the element of suffering that is incontrovertible evidence of accomplishment, the same way soreness is proof of a real workout.

The larger problem, however, is in viewing books as a means to some other end. Many people who aspire to read more are motivated by the promise that doing so will prevent cognitive decline, improve brain connectivity, or increase emotional intelligence. Even the obsession with retention assumes that the purpose of reading is to absorb knowledge or nuggets of trivia that one can use to demonstrate cultural literacy or being “well read.” What all of this obscures is the possibility that books might be a source of intrinsic pleasure, an end in themselves. I’d be willing to bet, Easy Listening, that your earliest experiences with the joy of literature were aural. Most of us were read to by adults before we learned to read ourselves, and listening to audiobooks recalls the distinctive delight of being told a story: the rhythms of the prose made incarnate in a human voice; the dialog animated through the performance of a skillful reader; the ease with which our eyes, liberated from the page, are free to roam around the bedroom (or the aerobics room, or the landscape beyond the car windshield) so as to better imagine the actions of the narrative playing out.

Oral storytelling predates writing by millennia, and many of the oldest stories in our literary canon existed for centuries as bardic tales before they were put down in print. The Homeric epics likely originated with bards who told them around fires and improvised their central plot points, which were passed down and adapted from one generation to the next. Evolutionary biologists have all sorts of conjectures about the utilitarian function of these rituals—storytelling may have emerged to deepen community bonds or model unfamiliar situations in ways that might have increased chances of survival—but I doubt that members of these cultures were consciously thinking, as so many readers are today, about how narrative exposure might boost their short-term memory or sharpen their capacity for empathy. Rather, they listened to stories because they were, quite simply, transfixed by their power.

These early stories were largely composed in verse, at a time when poetry, music, and storytelling were often so intertwined as to be indistinguishable. And I suspect that audiobook fans are at least partly drawn to listening because it’s easier to discern the melodic qualities of prose, which often get lost when we quickly scan a page of text without actually hearing the words in our heads. There is some evidence that listening, as opposed to reading, engages the right hemisphere of the brain, which is more closely associated with music, poetry, and spirituality. This might explain why some religious texts are designed to be read aloud. The scholar Karen Armstrong recently pointed out that the term qur’ān means “recitation” and that the scripture’s many repetitions and variations take on their full effect only when they are voiced by a gifted reciter who can, as she put it, “help people to slow down their mental processes and enter a different mode of consciousness.”

If you’re like most people I know, you probably find it difficult to recall the last time a book—regardless of how you consumed it—succeeded in altering your consciousness. Even your desire to “read more” contains a whiff of compulsion, suggesting that many books you’ve encountered have failed to live up to their transcendent potential. Anxieties about post-literacy tend to focus obsessively on the question of medium, and audiobooks are often hailed as one of the four horsemen of the apocalypse, alongside social media, visual entertainment, and the decline in attention spans. But it seems to me that there exists a more obvious explanation for why reading often feels so dull: Most books are very bad. The vast majority of them are uninspired, unconvincing, and poorly written. This has always been the case (surely there were some flops even among those bardic epics of yore), though it’s a truth that grows more elusive when we are led to believe that reading is not supposed to be enjoyable. When a culture falls prey to an obsession with “reading challenges” and daily word count goals, it is all too easy to become inured to the shoddiness of the texts we’ve chosen and more difficult to object to the offensive quality of many of the books on offer.

‘House of the Dragon’ Wants You to Trust ‘Game of Thrones’ Again

‘House of the Dragon’ Wants You to Trust ‘Game of Thrones’ Again

The jig was up the minute Queen (yes, Queen) Rhaenyra Targaryen cast her eyes away from the fire and seemingly set her sights on revenge: This new Game of Thrones show will give you what the last Game of Thrones show didn’t. It was as telegraphed as the fact that [spoiler] was going to die the second he got on that dragon. This show wants to restore the faith of every viewer who felt burned the last time by giving them what they want. Namely: a woman ready to ascend the Iron Throne who won’t lose herself in the process—and dragons, dragons, and more dragons.

Still, House of the Dragon has a long way to go to rebuild that trust.

First, if you haven’t seen Sunday’s finale episode and don’t want to know what happens, stop reading. Second, if you haven’t already kind of seen where this show wants to take you, you haven’t been paying attention. One of the benefits of Dragon, as opposed to Game of Thrones, remains that the show is based on a pretty set-in-stone bit of text—George R. R. Martin’s Fire & Blood. Unlike its predecessor, which ended its run in 2019 before Martin could finish writing the books on which it was based, HBO’s new fantasy thingamabob has guardrails. Yes, the show’s creator, Ryan J. Condal, could choose to remove them, but why? Surely he knows there is nothing down that path but pain.

Thus, House of the Dragon ended its first season with Rhaenyra hearing that her father, who had named her his heir, has died and her brother (literally from another mother), Aegon II, has taken the Iron Throne. Like Daenerys Targaryen, she is a white-haired woman (Targaryen genes are no joke) determined to claim her place. Unlike Daenerys—or, rather, unlike Daenerys toward the end of her quest for power—she has no “wish to rule over a kingdom of ash and bone.” She wants to unite the realm and all that. She, according to her former mother-in-law, Rhaenys—whose son, let’s not forget, she had killed so that she could marry her uncle, Daemon—is “the only one who has demonstrated restraint” as the rest of her council calls for war. Most of all, she is someone’s whose character arc has a blueprint.

Audiences, of course, are meant to see the parallels. Game of Thrones positions Daenerys, prior to her downfall, as the one to root for. Someone with a rightful claim to the Iron Throne who aims to free people and take her place as the one queen to rule them all. Problem was, her single-minded determination to wear the crown ended up overpowering all of her “I’m going to break the wheel” change-the-game talk, and she decided to torch King’s Landing rather than bring about some great Targaryen reign. For those who had been rooting for her, it was a big, largely unintelligible bummer.

House of the Dragon feels poised to remedy that. Whereas both shows seem intent on torturing their woman characters (Dragon just seems to have swapped assaults for very brutal birthing scenes), the new Thrones show is at least trying to show Rhaenrya’s evolution from a level-headed potential unifier of the realm to someone ready to choose violence to rule the Seven Kingdoms. Dany’s grip on her purpose started to fall apart when she fell for Jon Snow, who she later found out was also her nephew and had a claim to the Iron Throne as well. Granted, that would mess anyone up, but after everything Daenerys had endured, her response felt out of character. Watching House of the Dragon, one only hopes Rhaenyra doesn’t do anything similarly out of sorts.

Hope, as Corly Velaryon says, is the fool’s ally—but perhaps she won’t. At the conclusion of Sunday’s finale, she learns her son Lucerys has died on dragonback. In that moment her eyes look toward the camera, and it’s clear any thoughts of peace are gone. But unlike Dany’s scorched-earth capture of King’s Landing, Rhaenyra’s plan for revenge is at the heart of Fire & Blood, something on the page, not the final salvo of a show fumbling to its conclusion. Her destiny is already written; what will matter is if House of the Dragon follows it.

What Do We Really Know About Mental Illness?

What Do We Really Know About Mental Illness?

When Rachel Aviv was six years old, she stopped eating. Shortly after, she was hospitalized with anorexia. Her doctors were flummoxed. They’d never seen a child so young develop the eating disorder, yet there she was. Was it a response to her parents’ divorce? Diet culture? Innate asceticism? The episode remained mysterious. While Aviv made a full, relatively speedy recovery, she developed a lifelong interest in the borderlands between sickness and health.

In her new book, Strangers to Ourselves: Unsettled Minds and the Stories That Make Us, Aviv wonders whether she ever truly had anorexia at all, or whether the episode was perhaps too hastily pathologized. While she moved on from her bout of disordered eating without seeing it as a fixed part of herself, the girls she lived with in treatment—older, more self-aware—did not shake it off. Instead, their identities were subsumed by the anorexia. “Mental illnesses are often seen as chronic and intractable forces that take over our lives, but I wonder how much the stories we tell about them, especially at the beginning, shape their course,” Aviv writes. “People can feel freed by these stories, but they can also get stuck in them.”

If anyone knows the weight of stories, Aviv does. She’s a star New Yorker writer, capable of drilling into complicated, morally queasy situations and excavating definitive tales from the chaos. (Read her work on child welfare system overreach, please.) But Strangers to Ourselves is doggedly resistant to sounding definitive. Instead, it is insistent on ambivalence. The book is divided into four chapters, each one focusing on a different person with unusual mental health issues. (A prologue and epilogue delve into Aviv’s personal experiences.) These characters include Ray, a dermatologist who sues a ritzy mental institution for not giving him antidepressants; a Hindu mystic named Bapu, whose family has her institutionalized for schizophrenia; and a single mom named Naomi, incarcerated after she jumped off a bridge with her two sons in a suicide attempt, killing one. Their circumstances and conditions have little in common except extremity and uncertainty about what is really happening to them.

Aviv’s thesis is that there can be no grand unifying theory of the mind. “The theory of the chemical imbalance, which had become widespread by the nineties, has survived for so long perhaps because the reality—that mental illness is caused by an interplay between biological, genetic, psychological, and environmental factors—is more difficult to conceptualize, so nothing has taken its place,” she writes. Strangers to Ourselves is a look into this vacuum of understanding—about what happens when there’s no easily digestible story to explain what’s happening inside your head, when Freud and pharmaceuticals and everything else fails.

A later chapter, “Laura,” functions as an elegant but inconclusive interrogation of contemporary psychiatry. Connecticut blue blood Laura Delano was diagnosed with bipolar disorder early in life, and started her first psychiatric medication at the same time. She was a high achiever, attending Harvard, but she continued to struggle with her mental health; by her early twenties, she was heavily medicated and had survived a suicide attempt when she stumbled upon a book critical of psychiatric drugs. She decided to stop taking hers. Despite serious withdrawal symptoms as she weaned herself off pills, she preferred her life unmedicated. She became active in anti-psychiatric drug circles on the internet, eventually starting a popular blog. Aviv reveals that she found Laura’s writing while she was trying to understand her own relationship to psychopharmaceuticals—she has taken Lexapro for many years, and had wondered whether she might stop. Aviv does not go so far as to embrace the anti-psychiatry movement herself, although she treats Laura’s position with respect. She makes peace with her continued reliance on antianxiety medication for mental equilibrium, even as she ponders how little doctors know about why exactly it works. But she worries about how diagnoses can limit people’s understanding of themselves and what is possible.

In this regard, Strangers to Ourselves is an of-the-moment book. This summer, a paper reviewing the available literature on the link between depression and a serotonin imbalance concluded that there is no evident link. “The chemical imbalance theory of depression is dead,” The Guardian declared. Renewed skepticism of the biological model for understanding a wide variety of mental illnesses is rising. So Aviv’s persuasive writing on the necessity of considering the whole person, rather than their brain chemistry alone, is apt, albeit not particularly novel. Strangers to Ourselves joins a growing body of recent nonfiction complicating our understanding of the mind. In 2019, medical historian Ann Harrington published Mind Fixers: Psychiatry’s Troubled Search for the Biology of Mental Illness, a frequently eye-popping tour of psychiatry as it shifted from the Freudian to the biological model, underscoring how fraught chemical imbalance theory has always been. Neurologist Suzanne O’Sullivan’s 2021 book The Sleeping Beauties: And Other Stories of Mystery Illness delved into culture-bound syndromes and psychogenic illnesses, illustrating how intensely our environments and experiences can impact the ways our bodies and minds function. The strength of Strangers to Ourselves is in its engrossing case studies, which contribute vivid anecdotes to this ongoing conversation about the complex and perplexing nature of the mind.

Early on Aviv explains that she chose an episodic structure for the book, rather than one overarching narrative, in order to emphasize the sheer variety of emotional and psychic experiences, their fundamental irreducibility, their need for specific contextualization. Only a series of narratives could illustrate the point that there is no one singularly true narrative. “When questions are examined from different angles, the answers continually change,” she writes. This sentence is both undeniably true and maddeningly equivocal, like somebody saying “all music is good … depending on a person’s taste.” Sure, but so what? Taken individually, each story in Strangers to Ourselves is as typically excellent as Aviv’s magazine journalism, viscerally rendered and thoughtful portraits that slide into meditations on the mind. As a collection, though, they coalesce into an eloquent shrug. I wondered, upon closing the book, whether it might have left a firmer impression had it been published in serialized form—say, in a magazine—rather than gathered into a collection so opposed to clarity.

Better a sincere, beautifully written whimper than a disingenuous bang, of course. Aviv’s hazy but honest irresolution is much preferable to the blunt-force tendency to turn mental health diagnoses into cornerstones of identity, fixed personality traits rather than the often slippery, provisional snapshots of a person in one moment that they often are.

A Glimpse of a Future Without White People

A Glimpse of a Future Without White People

Whiteness is a seduction. Whiteness is also an illusion. These are the twin motifs on which Pakistani writer Mohsin Hamid props up The Last White Man, his new novel about race metamorphosis and human morality. Anchored in the bare and elegiac prose Hamid has made his trademark style, the book springboards from a single unexplained incident. Anders, a white man, awakens one morning to a new reality: his skin has “turned a deep and undeniable brown.”

The transformation, of which Anders’ is the first—but not the only, and certainly not the last—elicits worthy exploration. What if whiteness were suddenly gone? Would the social order of life come undone? Would anything change? Where Hamid lands doesn’t exactly persuade.

The sequence of events that follows plays into an ancient fear, that of The Other. (One’s need to estrange, Toni Morrison has said, is “a desperate attempt to confirm one’s own self as normal.”) For Anders, confusion bubbles. Panic swells. Initially, he flirts with thoughts of violence after realizing the transformation is irreversible. “He wanted to kill the colored man who confronted him here in his home,” Hamid writes, “to extinguish the life animating this other’s body, to leave nothing standing but himself, as he was before.”

It’s understandable why those who benefit from a particular standing would do anything to preserve it. The conscious seduction of power, of understanding the privileges from which one benefits and the life it affords, is, in part, about the necessity of control. I’d probably be upset and a little sad if I lost all of that, too.

But there isn’t a before Anders can return to. More and more, residents transform from white to varying shades of brown, at first causing uproar, until only one person—from which the novel draws its seemingly doom-laden title—is the remaining reservoir of whiteness.

At this point, the novel’s questions begin to stack. What is left to hold on to after such a life-altering occurrence? What remains paramount? Hamid answers: Love.

The great staging of Hamid’s work is intimacy; the grooves of human attachment his sole preoccupation. He is among the foremost diviners of partnership: of friendships, lifetime loves, and shattered marriages. Of how love is crystalized, of everything love can hold, what it can and will withstand across time. He understands—and in return makes us understand—our cavernous need for another, that somewhere bone-deep we cannot make it alone.

Hamid cycles into and out of the rotating threads—joy, loss, grief, anger, pleasure, birth, and rebirth—that animate the fabric of his storytelling, using Anders and his girlfriend Oona to stitch everything together. Having made peace with the tide of change, and all that it has upended, the pair venture back into the world. “No one there at the bar looked entirely comfortable, not the bartender, and not the men huddled in the only occupied booth … not any of these dark people bathed in the bar-colored light, trying to find their footing in a situation so familiar and yet so strange,” Oona observes. Or “maybe everyone looked the same as they always did,” she thought. It is only after “the whiskey settles into her belly” that she realizes that “the difference was gone.”