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This Brilliant Darkness: A Book of Strangers

4.26  ·  Rating details ·  249 ratings  ·  59 reviews
In the spirit of James Agee and W. G. Sebald, a profound work of literary art wedded to photographs.

As a journalist suddenly skeptical of the power of words to tell the deepest truths of other people’s stories, Jeff Sharlet turned to taking snapshots and posting them on Instagram―images that he then reflected on in words of extraordinary intimacy and power. A visionary wor
Hardcover, 336 pages
Published February 11th 2020 by W. W. Norton & Company
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Michael Smith
Feb 17, 2020 rated it it was amazing
What a beautiful and deeply important book for 2020, another election year when we’ll hear rhetoric without action, and lose touch yet again with the majority who suffer without representation. Hopefully this book cracks a few of us open and serves as a reminder that we can’t know what’s best for all if we’re not willing to get out there and listen to the most vulnerable amongst us.

May 30, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This book reminded me a lot of "Work and Other Sins" by Charlie LeDuff: short, quirky stories with creative perspectives of the people in plain view that we choose not to see. LeDuff's book was focused on the five boroughs of NYC whereas Sharlet finds his subjects in the rural northeast USA, Ireland, Russia and Los Angeles.

Sharlet employs a spare, almost but not quite poetic writing style that gives the book its unique essence. I read many passages two and three times to see if I read them corre
Alex Clark
May 12, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Like Humans of New York, but with better writing and much grittier.
Dec 11, 2020 rated it liked it
Shelves: three-star-reads
jeff sharlet dives deep into the darkness around us and awaiting us. taking snapshots & posting them on instagram, he also writes short true stories that bloomed into documentary - this work began when his father had a heart attack and two years later, jeff had a heart attack of his own. during those two years, he spent a lot of time on the road and meeting strangers.

⭐️⭐️⭐️/5. this is such an honest collection which kinda reminds me of humans of new york by brandon stanton. definitely not a book
D.J. Desmond
Mar 05, 2020 rated it liked it
I'm torn - I think this is one of the most unique books I have ever read, yet I don't really have any big takeaways from it. It was a cool experience with the form, but that's about it. ...more
Mar 01, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: 2020-reads
An emotional, heartfelt requiem on the painful parts of humanity that gives gentle audience to the people, places, and experiences that make most of us avert our gaze.

Neatly held in place by the bookends of the author’s father’s heart attack and his own, This Brilliant Darkness is a two year photo-journal of the people in society that fill the castes of Unnoticed and Untouchable. Sharlet brings a humane gentleness to his interactions with the self-proclaimed junkies, the night shift workers, the
Oct 08, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Can I just say, I love this book. If you're a people watcher or wonder about a stranger's life story, then this is a perfect fit.
A heart-rending collection of people that crossed paths with Jeff Sharlet throughout his career.
From his time documenting the homeless population on Skid Row in California, to the death of a man at the hands of the police, to the rise of Neo-fascists targeting the LGBTQ community in Russian towns, all the way down to everyday folks on his travels visiting his sick fat
Greg Bem
Jul 09, 2020 rated it it was amazing
What a beautiful, amazing book. I read it in 2.5 sittings, which lasted quite a while--but it's the type of book that absorbs. The arc of the book is unconventional, but the stories that fill its pages are unique and filled with so much soul. Sharlet has a great way of presenting our grotesque, blossoming humanity without sacrificing the voices of the people he profiles. The photography is gritty, grizzly, and makes for all the more power within the pages. ...more
Mar 01, 2020 rated it it was amazing
What a beautiful surprise of a book. Photographs and stories, most of them set-piece length. A particularly beautiful one about Russians. A few of those. Quite good.
Steve Wegman
Nov 27, 2020 rated it liked it
Feeling inexplicable joy and happiness? Needing a good dose of depression and hopelessness? Then this is the book for you! The 3 stars is because it is a well crafted, important book. If I complied literally with the Goodreads star system it would have been a 1 star. I did not like it, because I don't like to read true stories of ruined lives whether by their own stupid choices or mistreatment. It does a great job of helping you feel the hopelessness so many live with. I heard a recommendation a ...more
Ben Rosenstock
Feb 29, 2020 rated it really liked it
Took a long break in the middle of reading this (short) book, and I wish I hadn’t, because by the time I came back it felt like a chore. But it’s not at all—the book is short, super readable, and really beautiful, and I think if I’d read it all at once I’d be giving it an even higher rating. It’s kind of a collection of Humans of New York-style vignettes, though most of the time there isn’t really a core theme, lesson, or arc in each story.

I really like the way Jeff Sharlet focuses on other peop
Cecilia Domoto
Mar 08, 2020 rated it really liked it
How often do we encounter a book that is tough, difficult, and makes us uncomfortable?

Jeff Sharlet’s The Brilliant Darkness is this kind of book. He tells stories of strangers: people with guns, people with knives, homeless and house-less people, people living in the motels, the far-rights, the neo-fascists, the addicts, the anti-homosexuals, but they are also fathers, mothers, sons and daughters. They are people who associate with the “dark side” of our society, and who always frighten us.

Jerry Peace
Jun 24, 2020 rated it it was amazing
When you rate a book a five, what do you say about it? What words can you use to describe it? Well, I'm going to call it invasive. Now Sharlet's not invasive; anything but. But his book-with Jared and Charly and Mary and Alice and Hilda and Paige and Erica and Larry and Michael and Siobhan and Aidan and Elana and Anya and Alex and Timur( if that's even their names; Sharlet says our names are for us alone)-is itself invasive for the reader. These people, their photos, they're all in there, in me. ...more
Bruce Cline
Mar 06, 2020 rated it really liked it
This Brilliant Darkness, A Book if Strangers, by Jeff Sharlet (pp 315. Published 2020. In some ways this is an oddly interesting book: a collection of stories illustrated with photos taken by the author, who upfront claims not to be a photographer. By the look of his shots, he’s right: his phone snapshots are dark, fuzzy, often indistinct, and lacking detail. His stories, ranging from a single paragraph to many pages, are about people he’s met on the street. These are not people most of us have ...more
Julie Buckles
Sep 25, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Reading This Brilliant Darkness was like catching a whiff of Elmer's glue. It gave me all these hard-to-describe feelings. A bit of longing, of nostalgia for a type of journalism that is nearly dead. I remember journalism from the 90s--my reporter friends and I would get together and talk about the kind of journalism we wanted to do, and it was this. Stories about real people told in installments. I remember at the time someone in Florida was doing daily installments of a family going through AI ...more
May 21, 2020 rated it really liked it
Amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, this was an excellent book for me to read. I was inspired by his courageous, honest engagement with the people he met, got to know, and photographed for this book. I appreciated the many ways in which he truly noticed and saw them... not only with his camera, but with his eyes, ears, and heart. With social distancing making it harder to "randomly" strike up conversations with people met in public, especially those on the margins of society, Sharlet's storie ...more
Jul 06, 2020 rated it really liked it
A book about forgotten people whose stories force the reader to consider which stories are worth telling and why.

"I walked him to his car and returned us to our vacation rental,and then I drove him home. The blue had gone from his color, but what remained was ash. As if he was becoming a black and white picture. He listed in his seat, like a boat taking water."

"But he had been sick, I realized then, for a long time. He'd been pinned to his couch by the growing pressure in his chest, his broad fr
Mar 14, 2020 rated it really liked it
Stunning combination of narrative and images (photos from the author’s phone) of the most ignored people and places in our cities around the world. People who live in Skid Row, homeless in the U.S., being gay in Russia, poor in Africa.

An illustrated insomniac’s obsessive story of life on the edge, framed by his own deep grief and a sort of genetic ennui. This book reminded me of my own time working as the maintenance man at a private home for schizophrenic young adults and teens. Deep crazy but
Trey Hall
Mar 15, 2020 rated it it was amazing
How to describe this plaintive, splendid book? An old-school album of digital photos, a collection of the testimonies of forgotten people, true and evanescent. A series of ... what? ... prayers?, intercessions towards no personally named or actually-believed-in god, but divine all the same.

Reading it, seeing it feels like a Lenten journey. Disconsolate. Beatific. With wild beasts and attended by angels. "Never before in my life," writes the author, "has just being here - with the fox and the do
Alastair Woods
Apr 08, 2020 rated it it was amazing
There is very little I can say about this genre-defying book that would accurately capture just how stunning, how innovative, how tender and how revelatory it is. Its a powerful ode to looking, the "solidarity of recognition" as Sharlet writes. The book is comprised of a series of images and text, some of which are tied to a journalistic narrative arc, others are simply assortments of photos and texts; vignettes. The book opens and closes with meditations from Sharlet on the circumstances that l ...more
Trent Smith
Mar 14, 2020 rated it it was amazing
If one of literature's primary powers is to jettison us from our myopic lives and into the dark, liminal headspace of others, then Sharlet's latest photojournalist collection shines a heavenly light on this brilliant darkness. Maybe my desire to apply hyperbolic praise on Jeff is due to the fortunate fact that this book and reader merged at an optimal moment in time. Regardless, I present Exhibit A on why creative nonfiction--when done correctly--kicks the mighty ass out of your favorite fiction ...more
Mar 22, 2020 rated it it was amazing
This Brilliant Darkness is an empathetic and beautifully human work of journalism. After having a heart attack in his forties, Jeff Sharlet starts taking photos and posting them on Instagram of people he meets. There's the night shift workers, the LGBTQ+ population in Russia, an inspiring actor killed by police on Skid Row, and Mary, who goes nowhere without her beloved plant Bandit, among others. If you need a book that will make you feel more connected to humanity at large, this is an excellen ...more
Zhuo Zhang
Mar 30, 2020 rated it it was amazing
After I was notified to work from home, the library was notified to close. Fortunately, the book got renewed automatically for another month. So I read it slowly cause it is not easy to digest the words and the pictures in the book. The prospective is very unique and thought-provoking, thus sometimes it is also a little difficult to digest comfortably. I like the last chapter the best, especially the paragraph he described about his heart attack and his interpretation of cold. The pictures visua ...more
May 12, 2020 rated it really liked it
I read an excerpt of this book in Harper's magazine, which intrigued me. That article was an excerpt from the section where Jeff talks about people he meets working the night shift, along with their photos. All of the character studies in this book are so memorable: the night shift workers, the woman with a plant for a friend, the homeless immigrant in LA. The author also talks about their family history and personal things, making this book a combination of memoir and journalism. I found the au ...more
Pete Funk
Sep 19, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Photographs accompanying Jeff's finely honed, insightful writing. The book is bookended by a connection between his father's heart attack and his own. The thread being his drives from his home to visit his father. In between are Jeff's magazine pieces and photos. The writing is long form and uniformly excellent. I'd read one of the pieces before, the others new to me. Jeff"s writing makes each story seem intensely personal and I intend that as a compliment. Whether he's documenting a police shoo ...more
There is a certain type of book I love most: one that tells the story of ordinary people as if it were a novel. This is one of those stories, but even better, this one has photos.

I loved many aspects of this story. I felt deeply sad reading about the lives of people who were struggling, who could have had a different life if only. All that was slightly, and only slightly, spoiled, by the author's pretension. There were some parts that I had to keep from rolling my eyes-- it seemed like he was tr
David Kenny
Jan 16, 2021 rated it it was amazing
This is a BEAUTIFUL thing, as it’s not just a ‘story’, but a collection of excellent photographs that are so captivating, and act as the catalyst for the accompanying text. It’s both uplifting and incredibly sad, stories of ordinary Americans who’s lives just became too complex to manage, told with such tenderness and compassion. Jeff Sharlet just grabbed the third rail, the sparks flew, and his courage has lit a corner of our world that society conspires to keep in the shadows. His love tears a ...more
Feb 19, 2020 rated it it was amazing
What a talent, to see those that others would walk past and then to express them in words that show who they are, beneath the surface, back to the days when life was not so bleak. I was not prepared for how much I would love this book with its poetic phrases, its glimpses into an America many would rather forget, and its honest look at the PEOPLE who make up our biggest controversies. Beautiful book!
George Wallace
Mar 24, 2020 rated it really liked it
What makes the darkness brilliant it seems Jeff implies is the courage of those who work the night shift. Contemplative and a mix of photographs and his musings. I especially liked the section about Charly Keunang who was tragically killed by police in a way that begs for social reflection and an honest and redemptive discussion (Truth and Reconciliation style) of race and class and violence in our culture.
James Beggarly
Jun 25, 2020 rated it it was amazing
A wonderful book of essays and photos. This book was written after the author’s father had a heart attack and two years later when the author has his own. The book is made up of short profiles of people living on the outer margins of life, plus longer profiles of a man shot six times by police while living in a tent in Los Angeles’ Skid Row and how a group of people are dealing with Russia’s new anti-LGBT laws. Amazing stories from an empathetic writer who always listens.
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I'm a contributing editor for Harper's and Rolling Stone and I also write about music for Oxford American, politics for The Nation, and media for The Revealer, a review of religion and the press published by the New York University Center for Religion and Media, where I'm an associate research scholar.
I'm the author of The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power (Harper,

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