This is a little love letter to The New Yorker. How remarkable that almost ninety years after its founding, this artifact of the Algonquin Roundtable era still survives — literate, scrupulously edited and engrossing. The back-of-the-book reviews are must reads and at least one piece per issue is eye-opening.
For my money the chief joy of The New Yorker is a journey in prose to a place you wouldn’t otherwise go. These can be backstage glimpses of familiar people, places and things or detours down unfamiliar, even unimagined byways.
John McPhee is famously good at this sort of thing. Long ago E.B. White, A. J. Liebling, Joseph Wechsberg, and many others did their magic. Today in their quite different ways Adam Gopnik and David Owen, just to name two, are a guarantee of writing that assumes you can be interested in something other than the ordinary.
Recently the magazine has taken us to Africa to examine the Ebola front lines, inside the kitchens and storerooms of one of the biggest cruise ships on earth, on a tour of the urban dysfunction of Paris as epitomized by the abandoned Samaritaine and the too popular Pont des Arts.
The magazine has followed an underground supply chain that brings illegal immigrants from China through Mexico to the Eastern seaboard where they are essentially turned into indentured servants manning hundreds of Chinese restaurant kitchens. And it has investigated the odd, but apparently effective medical procedure known as fecal transplant.
But the proximate cause of this paean is the issue of Nov. 24 which you’d be advised to rush to read. There isn’t a bad piece in it. I began, as I often do, at the rear with the book and movie reviews and moved on to an amazing sign-of-the-times description of 10x. This is both geek-speak for computer coders and programmers ten times as productive as their more ordinary brethren and the name of a company that represents them.
By “represent” I mean that 10x is a talent agency for software superstars, negotiating signing bonuses and lucrative pay deals. The founders are longtime agents for music acts like John Mayer who realized one fine day that programmers were similar to their musician clients — talented people in their realm but hapless when it came to protecting their own interests or dealing with the Suits.
Here is a glimpse inside a world as esoteric and unexpected as the KGB or a Tibetan lamasery. One interesting tidbit concerns the fact that many of these 10xers have hobbies, most often in the arts. One arranges poetry readings, another is a painter, a third a sculptor. One makes furniture and one is a world class carver of fruit. His Halloween pumpkins have been purchased by George Lucas and graced the White House. Obviously the brains of coders have something in common with the brains that create, especially in three dimensions.
A second article by Jerome Groopman about 3-D printing as a bio-science tool seemed to indicate a theme afoot, at which point I finally turned to the table of contents and discovered I was reading the Tech Issue.
Mind blowing things are happening thanks to 3-D printing, though one of the wizards was a bit tart about, to her mind, premature claims that the manufacture of whole organs is just around the corner. But she is engaged in trying to manufacture capillary networks and nephrons, the possible building blocks of such a project. Already it seem that 3-D printed products may soon replace old-fashioned orthodontic braces and have begun to revolutionize reconstructive surgery. O, brave new world.
Other pieces include Steve Coll on drone warfare, Ben McGrath on a 20-year-old Canadian girl who is the great female hope in the world of professional players of the StarCraft II video game, and John Seabrook on the Scandinavian creator of Spotify which will either save or further disrupt the music business.
I knew nothing about any of these subjects when I opened this issue and wouldn’t have predicted I’d have the slightest interest in many of them. Neither perhaps would the men and women who made the magazine great in earlier days — Harold Ross, James Thurber, Lillian Ross, Dorothy Parker, Susan Sontag, S. J Perelman, John Hersey — but they would have recognized the familiar New Yorker modus operandi. Find a new story or a new angle on a familiar one, research it exhaustively, write it brilliantly and publish explorations the reader can’t put down. Eighty-nine years old — alive and kicking.