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 Matthew Trammell is not like a piece by James Wood, and neither is like a piece by Peter Schjeldahl. One could not mistake Finnegan for Frazier, or Lepore for Paumgarten, or Goodyear 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.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

August 15 & 22, 2011 Issue

Question: What do the following places have in common? North Greenland Ice-core Project, Caernavon Freshwater Diversion Project, Georgia Tech’s School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, the ballroom of New Orleans’ Sheraton Hotel, the Alaskan village of Shishmaref, Fort McMurray, and Fort Chipewyan.

Answer: They’re all places that figure in Elizabeth Kolbert’s marvelous writings on science and the environment, e.g., “Ice Memory” (The New Yorker, January 7, 2002), “The Climate of Man – I” (The New Yorker, April 25, 2005), “Watermark” (The New Yorker, February 27, 2006), “Unconventional Crude” (The New Yorker, November 12, 2007). And, by extension, they’re all places that I feel I’ve visited (albeit vicariously) through the medium of her marvelous, sharp-eyed, intelligent prose.

Now, as a result of reading her excellent “Sleeping with the Enemy” in this week’s issue of the magazine, I can add Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Leipzig Zoo, Auerbachs Keller (a Leipzig bar), La Ferrasie (an archeological site in the Dordogne) and Grotte des Combrelles (a cave, also in the Dordogne) to the list. Reading Kolbert is like going on a stimulating field trip led by a nervy, sophisticated, but unpretentious guide, who talks in clear language about complex scientific issues. I particularly like her paragraphs that contain lines like “One morning, I went to the zoo, hoping to watch an experiment in progress,” or, “One evening, though, he offered to knock off early and show me around downtown Leipzig,” or, “Over the summer, a team that included one of Pääbo’s colleagues was excavating at La Farrassie, and I decided to go down and have a look,” or “On my last day in the Dordogne, I decided to visit a nearby human site known for its extraordinary images.” I devour lines like those. I read them and I inwardly shout, “Yes! I'm with you! Let’s go!” “Sleeping with the Enemy” is a great piece. I enjoyed it immensely.

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