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.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Top Ten "New Yorker" Writers' Collections

I’ve set myself a challenging task: Pick the ten best New Yorker writers’ collections. There are many wonderful ones to choose from. John McPhee’s oeuvre alone includes at least eight candidates. As usual, pleasure will be my guide. One self-imposed limitation: No writer can have more than one book on the list. Okay, here goes:

1. John Updike’s Hugging the Shore (1983) – Book reviews, for me, are the ultimate brain candy, and this collection is like a giant box of Godiva chocolates – ninety-two of Updike’s exquisite, delicious reviews.

2. Pauline Kael’s Reeling (1976) – Contains at least twenty of Kael’s greatest reviews, including “Everyday Inferno” (on Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets), “Movieland – The Bum’s Paradise” (on Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye), and her famous “Tango” (on “Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris).

3. John McPhee’s Uncommon Carriers (2006) – I relish this book. I relish all of McPhee’s collections. Uncommon Carriers includes “A Fleet of One,” “Tight-Assed River,” “Five Days on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers,” Out in the Sort,” and “Coal Train” – all masterpieces.

4. Janet Malcolm’s The Purloined Clinic (1992) – Few books have afforded me as much pleasure as this one. Includes “Dora,” “Six Roses ou Cirrhose?,” “The Purloined Clinic,” “The One Way Mirror,” “A Girl of the Zeitgeist,” and “The Window Washer.” The title piece, a review of Michael Fried’s Realism, Writing, Disfiguration: On Thomas Eakins and Stephen Crane, is stunning, one of the all-time great New Yorker reviews (see my post “Top Ten New Yorker Book Reviews, 1976 – 2011, #4: Janet Malcolm’s ‘The Purloined Clinic’ ”).

5. Ian Frazier’s Gone to New York (2005) – A strong argument can be made that Frazier’s recent Hogs Wild is his best collection, but I still favor the older book, mainly because it includes his incomparable “Route 3.”

6. Peter Schjeldahl’s Let’s See (2008) – Seventy-five ravishing art reviews by The New Yorker’s premier stylist. Schjeldahl’s vivid, textured lines afford deep pleasures in subtle beauties of description and perception. I devour them and hunger for more.

7. Helen Vendler’s Soul Says (1995) – Contains ten of Vendler’s best New Yorker poetry reviews, including her brilliant “A Wounded Man Falling Towards Me,” a review of Seamus Heaney’s The Government of the Tongue (see my post “Top Ten New Yorker Book Reviews, 1976 – 2011, #1: Helen Vendler’s ‘A Wounded Man Falling Towards Me’ ”).

8. Alec Wilkinson’s The Riverkeeper (1991) – Possibly the most physically beautiful of all the books on this list (the dust jacket features a painting by Saul Steinberg), this slim, elegant collection contains three excellent pieces – “The Blessing of the Fleet,” “The Riverkeeper,” and “The Uncommitted Crime.”

9. James Wood’s The Fun Stuff (2012) – Anyone who follows this blog knows I’m crazy about Wood’s criticism. This collection includes seventeen of his New Yorker pieces (fifteen reviews and two personal essays), all of them terrific.

10. Anthony Lane’s Nobody’s Perfect (2002) – I have read and reread certain essays (“Vladimir Nabokov,” “W. G. Sebald,” “Eugène Atget,” “Walker Evans”) in this wonderful collection so many times that I’ve worn it out (the spine is broken, pages are loose). In his Introduction, Lane calls the book a “hunk of old journalism.” Physically, that’s what my copy looks like. But it’s much more than that. It’s a dazzling collection of Lane’s New Yorker writings, a tremendous source of reading pleasure.

Honorable Mentions: Mark Singer’s Mr. Personality (1988); Joseph Mitchell’s Up in the Old Hotel (1992); Judith Thurman’s Cleopatra’s Nose (2007); Berton Roueché’s The River World and Other Explorations (1978); John Lahr’s Joy Ride (2015); Whitney Balliett’s Ecstasy at the Onion (1971); John Seabrook's Flash of Genius (2008).

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