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.

Friday, February 3, 2017

January 30, 2017, Issue

Jill Lepore, in her absorbing “Autumn of the Atom,” in this week’s issue, traces the history of the apocalyptic scenario known as “nuclear winter.” She tracks it back to Carl Sagan’s campaign against Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI). In 1983, Sagan, in collaboration with four other scientists, wrote an influential paper forecasting, as a consequence of nuclear war, “a nuclear winter that might result in the end of all life on the planet” (Lepore’s words). Intriguingly, Lepore also links nuclear winter with climate change. It’s this aspect of her piece that hooked me. Lepore argues that “the political campaign waged against nuclear winter—against science, and against the press—included erecting a set of structures, arguments, and institutions that have since been repurposed to challenge the science of global warming.” For example, she shows the George C. Marshall Institute, founded in 1984 for the purpose of countering Sagan and defending SDI, turning its attention, four years later, to challenging the science behind global warming.

“Autumn of the Atom” isn’t like other recent Lepore pieces, e.g., “Esmé in Neverland,” “The War and the Roses,” and “Joe Gould’s Teeth.” It’s more an argument than it is a reporting piece, a double argument – Sagan’s subversion of SDI and Lepore’s jab at critics of climate-change science. It’s written entirely in the third person – not my favorite perspective. But I relish argument, especially when it combines such a variety of piquant ideas, people, and events, as this one does. And the magnetism of Lepore’s brilliant, brisk, fluent, intelligent prose draws me on, especially lines like “Nuclear-weapons policy is a body of speculation that relies on fearful acts of faith. Doctrinally, it has something in common with a belief in Hell”; “Talking about warheads seemed like a fabulous way to be famous”; “The nuclear-winter debate has long since been forgotten, but you can still spy it behind every cloud and confusion.” For these reasons, Jill Lepore’s “Autumn of the Atom” is this week’s Pick of the Issue.

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