In Praise of The New Yorker

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Two of the most enduring Excellent Things in my life are subscriptions to magazines that the postal service has been regularly depositing in my mailbox for almost thirty years. One of those subscriptions is for The New Yorker. (I will valorize  the other excellent magazine I subscribe to, The Sun, another time.)

Like many Americans who don’t happen to live in New York City, I have fantasized at one time or another about moving there – for all the obvious reasons that people who choose to live there are living there. I count myself fortunate to have lived there briefly – for the entire, magical summer of 1968 – and to have returned there since then for numerous always-too-brief visits. (It’s hard to believe that it’s been five years since my most recent trip there.  Yikes! That’s partly because I no longer have any close friends living there; when Corky was alive and living in Manhattan, I visited a lot more often.)

Although the thought hadn’t occurred to me until recently, I’m think my longtime subscription to The New Yorker has been, among other things, a way of pretending that I have an ongoing – if merely an imaginative – connection with that amazing metropolis. (With other beloved cities – London, Paris, San Francisco – it’s mostly remembered experiences there, in addition to my reading, that keep alive my affection or nostalgia for them.) That said, the reasons I still look forward to every issue’s arrival have little to do with the magazine’s commentary on the city’s current cultural happenings.

Some of those reasons for my loving this remarkable magazine:

  • It provides a substantial weekly dose of what I regard as my continual (if informal and self-selected) education. It’s impossible to sit down with an issue of this magazine without learning something fascinating or deeply interesting – possibly learning something about a subject I didn’t know I cared a hoot about. Until, that is, I waded into one of the magazine’s famously lengthy articles and found myself (because of the excellent writing or the impressively- and engagingly-marshalled research) gradually more and more intrigued and, ultimately, enlightened.
  • The sheer scope of the subjects The New Yorker addresses is astonishing – and satisfying. Not at all confining itself to things of interest primarily to New York residents, everything, large and small, enduring or ephemeral, is fair game for The New Yorker. Where else would one stumble upon an essay (by the always excellent Ian Frazier) about the Statue of Liberty – or, rather, of the particular familiar color of that statue, and its intriguing history?
  • The magazines editors employ a mixture of different presentations: thoughtful editorial commentary on national as well as local events and personalities; essays on everything under the sun; interviews with or profiles of famous people – and of people whose adventures or accomplishments or predicaments should have made them more famous than they are; reviews of books on subjects or written by authors (many of them no longer living) that I happen to be particularly and permanently obsessed with; startling photographs.
  • Most of the magazine’s essays and profiles feature a recurring pattern. Almost always, you know the writer is going to draw you into his/her subject in an engaging, often witty, way, and then, usually about midway through, the writer is going to back up and give you a mini-history of whatever – or whoever – he or she is writing about before resuming his/her analysis of why this person, place, thing, event, trend, creative work or artist, or area of scientific or sociological research matters. New Yorker writers seem to be expected to give the reader background, a context, to better appreciate what he/she is writing about. I love this reliable feature of New Yorker articles. Some of which, by the way, are so much longer than what Americans are used to reading, but so much better than if they’d been edited to a shorter length.
  • It provides a weekly sampling of some of the best nonfiction writing, and some of the best researched journalism, and some of the most impressive criticism being published. Well, in the English language, anyway. (The magazine also famously produces some of the planet’s best-written fiction; although there are undoubtedly people who subscribe to the magazine precisely because of the excellence of its fiction, I am ashamed to admit that I seldom reads The New Yorker fiction myself, having long, long ago – and somewhat mysteriously – become a reader who continually chooses to focus his reading energies on nonfiction. I can report, however, that I have never regretted a single decision of mine to read one of the fiction entries.)
  • Some of my favorite essayists regularly contribute to (or are one the staff of) the magazine. I am always to happy whenever I open up an issue and find another amazingly-written screed by Adam Gopnik or Louis Menand or Ian Frazier or Jeffrey Toobin or Jill Lapore or Roger Angell or Thomas Mallon or Calvin Trillin or David Remnick.
  • The critical essays alone are worth the subscription price. The swoon-worthy literary essays of James Woods and Daniel Mendelsohn (to mention a mere two of the magazine’s frequently-appearing literary critics) are not to be missed. I’m too young to have enjoyed the movie reviews by the renowned Paulene Kael, but I hope her successor at The New Yorker, Anthony Lane, outlives me, so that I’ll never be deprived of his amazingly insightful (and witty) movie reviews, or Hilton Als’s theater reviews, Alex Ross’s music reviews,  Peter Schjeldahl’s art and architecture reviews. I haven’t owned a functioning television set since the late 1980s, but sometimes the incredibly insightful (and witty) television show reviews of Emily Nussbaum make me wonder if I shouldn’t start (selectively) watching tv again.
  • Reading The New Yorker feeds my respect for and gradually increasing knowledge about a whole train of writers whose work the magazine published in previous eras: not only certain beloved poets (although far too many of the poems published over the past thirty years have left me unmoved if not downright annoyed), but revered essayists like E.B. White and George Steiner, not to mention the humorists of the Algonquin Round Table. It was The New Yorker who first or eventually introduced me to some of the most brilliant prose stylists of all time, including personal favorites like William Maxwell,  Jacques Barzun and Gore Vidal. I can’t begin to list the number of writers of enduring importance to me whose work I first read (or read about) in The New Yorker. In other words, this magazine is largely responsible for keeping alive my feeling of kinship with  (and certainly my admiration for) the Life of the Mind in general, the Life of the Arts in particular, and even more particularly, connected in a virtual sort of way with the mostly-American and British literary writers that the magazine has published or covered (or both).
  • The cartoons! Does any magazine, anywhere, publish such excellent cartoons?

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Not to mention the satirical prose gems that regularly appear in the magazine’s “Shouts & Murmurs” feature, which regularly features such fiendishly hilarious writers as David Sedaris, Woody Allen, and Paul Rudnick.

  • The covers! Not only are they usually wonderful, but every time I see one (and often when I’m about to discard an issue), I’m reminded of something someone I knew back in the early 1980s did with her subscription to The New Yorker: she papered the walls of her very large bathroom, from top to bottom, with hundreds of old New Yorker covers! It looked great!

The fascinating history of this magazine, all by itself, is almost enough to make one want to subscribe!

Incidentally, just as I prefer to read printed (vs. screen-requiring) books, I love getting the print version of the magazine. Subscribers have free access to the magazine’s online version, which contains even more examples of good writing than the printed version has room for, but unfortunately I never developed the habit of visiting the website to discover these extra morsels of wonderfulness.

A final note. Because the magazine is published every week, and aside from the fact that with some issues I’m able to immediately sit down and devour in their entirety in a single sitting, I am usually several weeks, if not several months, behind in my getting around to reading them. But I know better than to throw out any of the not-quite-finished older issues, as there’s bound to be something in each of them – and probably more than a single thing in each of them – that I’d be sorry to have missed. So there are usually multiple partially or completely un-read issues stacked on my coffee table at home. There are just as many piled on my bedside table at the cabin. In my view, this procrastination-created predicament is A Good Problem to Have.

It is difficult to gauge the full extent to which The New Yorker enlivens my interior life, but it’s significant enough to have made it easy for me to decide, decades ago, that I would continue subscribing to The New Yorker for the rest of my (or its) life. Though certain issues pack a bigger punch that certain other ones, there’s never, in thirty years, been a dud issue, which is why my enthusiasm for this magazine and its incredible writers and editors has never flagged. My subscriptions to other magazines – The Atlantic, Harper’s, Mother Jones, The Smithsonian, Mother Earth News – have come and gone, but I couldn’t do without The New Yorker.

Or, for that matter, without The Sun, whose virtues –  so different from The New Yorker’s – I shall get around to extolling in due course.

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5 thoughts on “In Praise of The New Yorker

  1. I agree with you here: I have been reading The New Yorker for over forty years and consider it nutritious brain food. I love it. It has never let me down. For one thing, it is reassuring to be reminded every week that there is civilization flourishing in a specific place in our country and that there are intelligent, perceptive writers pointing out the not so obvious on every possible topic. It is always surprising. And it is never, as far as I am concerned, smug or self congratulatory. They seem to have some humility about what they are doing so well. Steve

    1. Steve, you put into only a few sentences what it took me paragraph after paragraph to say! Thank you for reading my blog, and I think you should start one yourself: you are a master of succinct statement! Really!

  2. Being a slow reader, a subscription to the New Yorker always ended in a pile of guilt. Sometimes, before the digitizing of everything, I would go through back issues and tear out articles to read later so I could, before recycling, through the accumulating copies away. Now I rely on recommendations from friends for articles. I agree it is a wonder and a treasure trove. Alas, so many words, so little time.

    1. I do get overwhelmed still, sometimes, with the piles of unread New Yorkers. But, since I retired, I’ve not only had more time to read, but have gotten more efficient at Keeping Up. I am so often stunned by how good the writing is that I just can’t quit the magazine, even though it would save me a lotta money if I could, and would feel better in the guilt department as well! At at rate. thanks for reading the blogpost.

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