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.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

October 24, 2016, Issue

Elizabeth Kolbert’s brilliant “A Song of Ice,” in this week’s issue, brims with the kind of sentence  active, specific, first-person, real  that, for me, makes journalism the most exhilarating form of writing. Consider its opening lines:

Not long ago, I attended a memorial service on top of the Greenland ice sheet for a man I did not know. The service was an intimate affair, with only four people present. I worried that I might be regarded as an interloper and thought about stepping away. But I was clipped onto a rope, and, in any case, I wanted to be there.

I want to be there, too. And thanks to Kolbert’s superb narrative art, I am there, right along side her, as she walks the slippery bank of a Greenland ice stream, sips champagne in an ice station rec room atop a vast ice sheet, attends a political meeting in Nuuk, walks through a “dusty dog encampment,” boats to the “calving front” of a glacier, and stands on the “suicide ledge” near Ilulissat observing the ice bergs in the fjord:

Towers of ice leaned against arches of ice, which pressed into palaces of ice. Some of the icebergs had smaller icebergs perched on top of them, like minarets. There were ice pyramids and what looked to me like an ice cathedral. The city of ice stretched on for miles. It was all a dazzling white except for pools of meltwater—that fantastic shade of Popsicle blue. Nothing moved, and, apart from the droning of the mosquitoes, the only sound was the patter of water running off the bergs.

Kolbert is magnetized by Greenland ice. She writes,

People attracted to the Greenland ice sheet tend to be the type to sail up fjords or to fly single-engine planes, which is to say they enjoy danger. I am not that type of person, and yet I keep finding myself drawn back to the ice—to its beauty, to its otherworldliness, to its sheer, ungodly significance.

Kolbert has explored that “sheer ungodly significance” at least twice before, in “Ice Memory” (The New Yorker, January 7, 2002), and “The Climate of Man – I” (The New Yorker, April 25, 2005). “A Song of Ice” is her masterpiece. It’s definitely one of this year’s best reporting pieces.

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