A Sad First in the Penny Press

a bunch of magazines

Ordinarily, the confluence of deadline pressure, space limitations, and professional responsibility tend to level the discourse in the mainstream Penny Press – at least, the regions of it where I forage. It’s true that the front half of explicitly political magazines like The New Statesman or The Weekly Standard will be full of articles claiming man-caused runaway global warming is a myth (and featuring cartoons where President Obama looks like a lot like a monkey), but the back half of those magazines are full of book reviews dishing up snappy summaries and, one hopes, some thoughtful observations. There will hardly ever be any outright gush-jobs (although the entirely uncritical reception gifted to Earle Labor’s recent biography of Jack London came very close quite a few times), and there will hardly ever be any outright ad hominem attacks. Instead, it’ll be – for the most part – the sweet, sweet sound of book-talk.

Obviously, this holds true for book-oriented things like The New York Review of Books (although I’ve carped before about the ratio of book reviews to political pieces – the current near 50-50 split strikes me as egregiously muddle-headed). In my long tenure as a devoted reader of the NYRB, I’ve encountered almost every kind of book-talk imaginable, and I’ve had the wide range of reactions. I’ve read extremely thoughtful critiques of books I didn’t think were worth it; I’ve read hilarious write-ups of deadly dull works; I’ve seethed with frustration when some critic just doesn’t get the book he’s reviewing but instead keeps bumbling around it like a Hoosier booster trying to navigate an obstacle course. And I’ve experienced the much colder, much less pleasant, and ultimately much more rewarding feeling of watching a critic I respect butcher a work I also respect. It’s all exhilarating. It’s why I keep coming back to the NYRB.

Not in all the time I’ve been reading it, not in the eye-blink fifty years since it appeared out of nowhere on the rack at Trow’s Stationary (when I went in for the latest Superman, Fantastic Four, Rawhide Kid – and some weird new thing called Spider-Man – the proprietor handed me the NYRB, said “This looks right up your alley,” and let me read it for free “so you can tell me if I should order more”), have I felt the bottom just fall out of that exhilaration, even for a moment.

Not in all that time has the NYRB published something that was simply stupid. I got that very unwanted first taste just this week, reading the letters page of the latest issue.

Cristof Koch, author of Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist, writes a biting, thoughtful response to a review written by Jason Epstein:

I was appalled that in Jason Epstein’s review of Dana Goodyear’s book on extreme eating not a single mention is made of the fact that the penises, brains, hearts, and whole embryos that are now de rigueur to consume by our haute cuisine establishment derive from sentient creatures. These animals are all capable of sophisticated behaviors that, would they occur in people, are associated with empathy, attachment, curiosity, metacognition, and conscious awareness. Maybe even food writers and their critics can acknowledge this uncomfortable truth and face up to their ethical blindness.

To which Jason Epstein replies with the only flat-out stupid thing I’ve ever read in the New York Review of Books:

We are omnivores. We eat anything edible including ourselves. I deeply regret the suffering of animals but there are not enough vegetarians to solve the problem. Even Adolf Hitler, a vegetarian himself according to his intimates, with absolute power over those in his net, could do nothing to prevent this pain. I wish it were different but we are what we are.

As with all truly stupid things, there’s no responding to it, no engaging with it. Stupidity exists on a strata far below argument, out of the reach of right and wrong. Stupidity can’t be countered – it can only be mocked and shunned.

Almost needless to say, I had not before now considered Jason Epstein a stupid man. And anybody can have an off day (quick tip: if you’re using Adolf Hitler to make your point – any point, on any topic – you’re having an off day). But shame on the NYRB for running what he wrote. Shame on the NYRB for forcing me, for the first time ever, to pen “STUPID” in the margin of their pages.


2 Comments to A Sad First in the Penny Press

  1. Chuck Darwin's Gravatar Chuck Darwin
    January 22, 2014 at 10:36 pm | Permalink

    Amen. I was disturbed by Epstein’s response to a very thoughtful letter by Koch. I’ve found Epstein’s output in the NYRB over the past few years to be generally disappointing. However, the always enlightening Mark Danner has compensated with his great trio of recent articles on Rumsfeld.

  2. Benjamin Schwarz's Gravatar Benjamin Schwarz
    April 21, 2014 at 3:35 am | Permalink

    Amen and bravo, Steve. Yours, Ben


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