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, January 25, 2012

January 23, 2012 Issue

My idea of an ideal sentence involves a combination of two essential ingredients: (1) first-person point of view; (2) present tense. This combination is rare, and is seldom found in The New Yorker. When it does occur, as it does in Donald Hall’s wonderful “Out the Window,” in this week’s issue, it’s a source of great reading pleasure. Here, taken from Hall’s piece, are some examples of inspired first-person/present-tense writing:

After months of snow and snowbirds, I look out the window at flowers and a luxury of green leaves and always at the wooden ancient hill of the barn.

In spring when the feeder is down, stowed away in the toolshed until October, I watch the fat robins come back, blue jays that harass them, warblers, blackbirds, thrushes, orioles, redwings. Starlings strut in the grass pulling worms. A robin returns every year to refurbish her nest after the wintry ravage. She adds new straw and mud. Soon enough she lays eggs, sets on them with short excursions for food, then tends to three or four small beaks that open for her scavenging. Before long, the infants stand, spread and clench their wings, peer at their surroundings, and fly away. I cherish them, and look for farther nests, small clots in branches of oak or Norway maple visible from my window.

Whatever the season, I watch the barn. I see it through this snow in January, and in August I will gaze at trailing vines of roses on a trellis against the vertical boards. I watch at the height of summer and when darkness comes early in November. From my chair I look at the west side, a gorgeous amber laved by the setting sun, as rich to the eyes as the darkening sweet of bees’ honey.

That “I cherish them, and look for farther nests, small clots in branches of oak or Norway maple” is very fine. Hall’s piece brims with such descriptions. Accordingly, it’s this week’s Pick Of The Issue.

Postscript: Another pleasure in this week’s issue is William Finnegan’s excellent “Slow and Steady.” I particularly like its description of the plowshare’s marginal scutes: “magnificent, flared and overdraped like heavy theatre curtains.”

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