What is The New Yorker? I know it’s a great magazine and that it’s a tremendous source of pleasure in my life. But what exactly is it? This blog’s premise is that The New Yorker is a work of art, as worthy of comment and analysis as, say, Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Each week I review one or more aspects of the magazine’s latest issue. I suppose it’s possible to describe and analyze an entire issue, but I prefer to keep my reviews brief, and so I usually focus on just one or two pieces, to explore in each the signature style of its author. A piece by Nick Paumgarten is not like a piece by Dana Goodyear, and neither is like a piece by Ian Frazier. One could not mistake Finnegan for Friend, or Bilger for Lepore, or Collins for Khatchadourian. Each has found a style, and it is that style that I respond to as I read, and want to understand and describe.

Friday, August 5, 2011

August 1, 2011 Issue

The most enjoyable piece in this week’s issue is Oliver Sacks’ Talk story, “Hunting Horsetails.” It’s about a field trip Sacks makes to the High Line to view a median “covered in horsetails.” Horsetails are plain-looking plants. Sacks says he has “a special, tender feeling” for them. He remembers in England, before the war, his favorite aunt taking him on woodland walks, pointing them out to him. He says, “I like their shape, their jointedness, like tiny bamboos.” The piece brims with shimmering, exact details (“The sporangia are getting tense and ripe, and by midsummer they will dehisc, bursting open to release millions of tiny green spores, their posterity, into the air”), and concludes with this inspired sentence: “All too soon, the High Line’s island of horsetails came to end, and after a dream of deep time, I was back in the noisy bustle of the twenty-first century.”

“Hunting Horsetails” is not the first fern-related Talk story that Sacks has written. A few years ago, The New Yorker ran his great “Botanists On Park” (August 13, 2007). It, too, abounds with wonderfully precise descriptions (e.g., “ebony spleenwort, Asplenium platyneuron, densely covered the trestle between 104th and 105th Streets”).

“Hunting Horsetails” may represent something of a breakthrough at The New Yorker. In compliance with the magazine’s long-standing practice, most, if not all, Talk of the Town stories are written in the first person plural. Interestingly, Sacks has been allowed to depart from that custom. “Hunting Horsetails” is written in the “I.” Time will tell whether this is a new development or merely an indulgence exclusively accorded to Sacks in deference to his greatness. Personally, I hope it represents change. I’ve always found Talk’s “we” perspective artificial.

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