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, June 24, 2016

June 20, 2016 Issue

Pick of the Issue this week is Raffi Khatchadourian’s brilliant "The Unseen," an “Annals of Science” piece about microbiology. I almost passed it up. I’m not crazy about science writing. But Katchadourian has written some of the best New Yorker pieces of the last five years. Recall his extraordinary "Transfiguration" (February 13 & 20, 2012), for example. So I decided to plunge in, and was immediately caught up in the description of 1960s Soviet Moscow – the Exhibition of the Achievements of the National Economy, the Cosmos Pavilion, the Monument to the Conquerors of Space, Vostok rockets, and Soyuz orbiters. On one level, “The Unseen” is a dual profile of microbiologists Slava Epstein and Kim Lewis. On another, it’s a fascinating account of Epstein and Lewis’s discovery of a powerful new antibiotic. And on a third, it’s an alarming report on a potential end-of-the-road for antibiotics. Along the way, Katchadourian explores, among other things, the Great Oxygenation Event, the Age of Microbes, and the Great Plate Count Anomaly. There are no flashy sentences in “The Unseen”; it’s built solidly of fact (e.g., “More than half the cells in the human body are microbial”; “That our atmosphere is twenty-one percent oxygen is a bacterial fact”; “Already there are strains of tuberculosis and gonorrhea, among other pathogens, that are resistant to virtually every drug in the medical arsenal”). But it's the exotic blend of samizdat and petri dish, refuseniks and microbial weeds, Sakharov and lantern-eye fish that appealed to me. “The Unseen” is a curious, distinctive literary brew. I enjoyed it immensely.

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