Dave Pell calls himself "Managing Editor of the Internet." (Photo/Adam Moore)
Dave Pell calls himself "Managing Editor of the Internet." (Photo/Adam Moore)

‘Please Scream’: New book revisits 2020’s collective nervous breakdown

Dave Pell calls himself the “managing editor” of the internet, a half-joking title he uses to sign off his NextDraft newsletter, in which he culls and synthesizes the day’s news stories and odd bits, with an eye toward the absurd.

His breadth of knowledge and skill at delivering tough news with humor and insight have put him in an ideal position to reflect on the events of 2020, a news year some would argue was one of the most momentous in modern history. In his new book, “Please Scream Inside Your Heart: Breaking News and Nervous Breakdowns in the Year That Wouldn’t End,” Pell revisits the stories many would rather forget and makes a case for why it is so important to remember them.

cover art of "Please Scream Inside Your Heart" by Dave Pell(“Scream Inside Your Heart” is what a Japanese amusement park asked people riding the roller coaster to do last year, so as not to spread viral droplets.)

Pell’s personal history drives much of his interest. His parents were both Holocaust survivors. Eda Kuflik, born in Cologne, Germany, spent the war years in a children’s home in France. Joseph Pell, born Yosel Epelbaum in Poland, lost his entire family during the war. He became a partisan and fought the Nazis, a harrowing story he recounted in an award-winning book, “Taking Risks: A Jewish Youth in the Soviet Partisans and His Unlikely Life in California.” He died in December 2020.

Dave Pell, 54, has been writing NextDraft in its current iteration since 2011 — it started as a news-filled email in the early 2000s — and its following has grown to 160,000 subscribers, according to several online sources. A graduate of UC Berkeley and the Harvard University Graduate School of Education, Pell taught in an inner-city high school in New York City before returning to Northern California, where he developed a career as a high-tech investor, a journalist and a news junkie. He lives in Marin County with his wife, Gina Pell, and their two children, son Herschel and daughter Octavia.

His book — which one reviewer called a “brilliant, riveting, Hollywood blockbuster-like ride through the year that transformed all of us” — makes no secret of his disdain for former President Trump and all that he wrought. Through a month-by-month review of news from 2020, Pell notes certain fascistic tendencies in the Trump administration and invites readers to revisit some of the most dramatic events: the impeachment hearings, the pandemic, the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, the Black Lives Matter protests and the presidential election, to name a few.

Growing up, Pell recounts in “Scream,” news and current events were a deflection, a way to eschew talking about feelings.

“News was more than information,” he writes. “It was a topic of discussion that enabled us to avoid other topics. There was some repression going on. There still is. But both of my parents were smart. They’d seen it all. Their predictions were usually right. Their ethics never wavered. And I knew why the news — and reading between the lines to understand what it meant to us and the rest of the world — was so important to them.”

Joseph Pell
Joseph Pell

Pell says when he started pointing out parallels between Hitler and Trump, people would pooh-pooh his observations. But then his father started verbalizing similar concerns — “You know, Trump’s speeches are starting to remind me of Hitler’s early speeches,” Joe Pell said — and people were not so quick to minimize his perspective.

In fact, Pell said, his father was hardly a dyed-in-the-wool liberal. “My dad was an old-school dude from Europe,” he said.

Pell does not shy away from criticizing his left-of-center peers, including their use of the slogan “defund the police,” which he finds overly simplistic. At times, he writes, it seems as if too many progressives are “competing in the Woke-Olympics.” In “some cases,” he concludes, “it’s better to be awake than woke.”

Not all of “Scream” is political in nature. To a large degree, the book is a personal history, a memoir of sorts, in which Pell, who sits on the board of 826 Valencia, the nonprofit co-founded by writer Dave Eggers, waxes eloquent on his life’s passions.

Ultimately, though, Pell said the catalysts for “Scream” were his desire to expose the threats to democracy, Americans’ relationship to media and technology, and a need to recount, in a diary-like, digestible format, a news year that made heads spin.

And then there’s this, Pell added, less than sheepishly: “I like writing about myself like any good narcissist.”

Robert Nagler Miller contributed to this report.

“Please Scream Inside Your Heart: Breaking News and Nervous Breakdowns in the Year That Wouldn’t End” (Hachette Books, 288 pages). In-person book launch 5:30-6:30 p.m. Nov. 11 at Sausalito Books by the Bay, sausalitobooksbythebay.com, and virtual conversation with Phil Bronstein 5 p.m. Nov. 12, bookpassage.com