The tagline of Jill Lepore’s brilliant "The Cobweb," in this week’s issue – “Can the Internet be archived?” – struck me as dry and theoretical. Not my cup of tea, I thought. But I read the first paragraph, which begins, “Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 took off from Amsterdam at 10:31 A.M. G.M.T. on July 17, 2014, for a twelve-hour flight to Kuala Lumpur.” I read the next line and the next line. The paragraph is anything but dry and theoretical; it’s vividly specific and real. It tells about the crash of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 in a field outside Donetsk, Ukraine, and about a Ukrainian separatist leader known as Strelkov posting a message on VKontakte, a Russian social-media site: “We just downed a plane, an AN-26.” I went on to the next paragraph, conscious of being hooked by the story and by the prose, which is crisp, direct, and factual. The second paragraph reports that two weeks before the crash, Anatol Shmelev, the curator of the Russia and Eurasia collection at the Hoover Institution, at Stanford, had submitted to the Internet Archive, a nonprofit library in California, a list of Ukrainian and Russian Web sites and blogs that ought to be recorded as part of the archive’s Ukraine Conflict collection, and that Strelkov’s VKontakte page was on that list. It also tells that the Internet Archive’s collections are stored in its Wayback Machine, in San Francisco. I moved to the third paragraph, fascinated by the linkage of the downed Malaysian Airlines plane, which I knew about from reading news reports, with the Internet Archive, which I had no clue existed. The third paragraph begins, “On July 17th, at 3:22 P.M. G.M.T., the Wayback Machine saved a screenshot of Strelkov’s VKontakte post about downing a plane.” It continues,
This is great writing. I enjoyed ‘The Cobweb” immensely.