The Best of 2014: In the Penny Press!
The roll call of periodicals I read was grimly undiminished in 2014. The list – currently National Geographic, The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, The New York Times Book Review, GQ, Esquire, Vanity Fair, New York Magazine, Men’s Journal, Outside, The London Review of Books, Bookforum, Publisher’s Weekly, Harper’s, The Rolling Stone, Audubon, The Atlantic, Asimov’s Science Fiction, The National Review, The New Republic, The Boston Review, The Nation, Smithsonian, Yankee Magazine, The Saturday Evening Post, Natural History, The Journal of Roman Studies, and of course the mighty TLS – is fairly long, and so the pool of candidates for the list is correspondingly huge. And inevitably, the more one reads (and the more Twitter-links one follows), the more one comes to realize how much other good stuff is almost certainly slipping by unread. This list, unlike the others in this annual Stevereads Gotterdamerung, is constructed in the full awareness that it’s only a rough approximation. That’s irksome, and in response I’ll be including a bit more than my customary ten items this time around:
18. The Teen Whisperer by Margaret Talbot (The New Yorker) – Naturally, I’m as appalled by the limitless super-phenomenon of YA author John Green as any other thinking adult. I shudder to think that this smiling, affable purveyor of fairly ordinary two-dimensional overwritten children’s books is the most influential and best-selling author in the history of mankind, with a vast cult of millions of tweens who would unhesitatingly garotte their grandmothers if he or his brother Hank so much as suggested it. But appalled or not, I couldn’t help but love Margaret Talbot’s shrewd – if droolingly hagiographic – profile of John Green, including her insights into how reading itself has changed for Green’s numberless fans:
In a different era, “The Fault in Our Stars” could have been that kind of cultish book. For many young people today, however, reading is not an act of private communion with an author whom they imagine vaguely, if at all, but a prelude to a social experience – following the author on Twitter, meeting other readers, collaborating with them on projects, writing fan fiction. In our connected age, even books have become interactive phenomena.
17. 21st Century Limited by Kevin Baker (The Atlantic) – Any profile of the American long-distance passenger rail system is bound to be heavily steeped in nostalgia, and this is certainly true of Kevin Baker’s lovely piece in the Atlantic. But Baker balances things out with some very good observations about the nature of the allure here:
“The romance of it!” But just what this means, they cannot really say. It’s tempting to think that we are simply equating romance with pleasure, with the superior comfort of a train, especially seated up high in the observation cars. But hang seen a rural train emerge silently through a gap in the New England woods, having seen the long slide of a 1 train’s headlights, I suspect that the appeal of trains is something more primitive than this. Trains are huge things that come upon us like predators. Almost from the beginning of the machine age, Americans yearned and sought ways for the train to connect their little towns – to connect them – to the greater world.
16. The War of the Words by Keith Gessen (Vanity Fair) – The story of Amazon v.s. the book world is far from over, but one of the best reports from the front lines was this smart and surprisingly funny piece by Keith Gessen from Vanity Fair, where for once Gessen’s tendency to make every single thing that happens in the world about himself actually works in favor of the performance, since he’s both a piece-writer for the glossies and a published author himself and thus vested in the whole question. And maybe as a result of this, he manages to fill his piece with great quotes and apercus:
Inside and outside of publishing, people disagree about how the business will shake out. “Book publishers had the longest time horizon to prepare for the digital transition,” the industry lawyer told me, “and they were the least prepared.” From Amazon’s perspective, demographics is destiny: people who read print are dying, while digital natives are being born.
15. Snowden in Exile by Katrina Vanden Heuvel & Stephen F. Cohen (The Nation) – Until I read this long interview with Edward Snowden in The Nation, I had very firm opinions about the guy, and they weren’t favorable by any means. Somehow, through the shrewdness and comprehensiveness of the questions and discussions provided by Vanden Heuvel and Stephen Cohen, this piece brought me to a new understanding, mainly, I think, by allowing Snowden to do so much of the talking himself:
“When people say, ‘I have nothing to hide,’ what they’re saying is, ‘My rights don’t matter.’ Because you don’t need to justify your rights as a citizen – that inverts the model of responsibility. The government must justify its intrusion into your rights. If you stop defending your rights by saying, ‘I don’t need them in this context’ or ‘I can’t understand this,’ they are no longer rights. You have ceded the concept of your own rights.”
14. The Human Factor by William Langewiesche (Vanity Fair) – It’s well-known – hell, I’ve been saying it for years – that William Langewiesche is the Homer of air travel, and this brilliant piece in Vanity Fair, about the 2009 crash of Air France Flight 447, is this great author at the height of his powers:
There is another unintended consequence of designing airplanes that anyone can fly: anyone can take you up on the offer. Beyond the degradation of basic skills of people who may once have been competent pilots, the fourth-generation jets have enabled people who probably never had the skills to begin with and should not have been in the cockpit. As a result, the mental makeup of airline pilots has changed.
13. The Dogmatist by John Gray (The New Republic) – I might have little patience with John Gray as a philosopher, but I have a new respect for him as a book reviewer after this New Republic piece savaging not only the new memoir by Richard Dawkins but also Richard Dawkins himself, and in such virtuoso terms that I almost felt sorry for Dawkins:
One might wager a decent sum of money that it has never occurred to Dawkins that to many people he appears as a comic figure. His default mode is one of rational indignation – a stance of withering patrician disdain for the untutored mind of a mind one might expect in a schoolmaster in a minor public school sometime in the 1930s. He seems to have no suspicion that any of those he despises could find his stilted prose of indignant rationality merely laughable.
12. What To Call Her? by Jenny Diski (The London Review of Books) – It seems almost blasphemous to cite this piece by Jenny Diski from The London Review of Books about her experiences when she was a girl living in the household of Doris Lessing instead of any of her incredibly moving essays about her recent ongoing struggle with cancer, but I can’t help it: this piece is such a perfect balance of tender and bittersweet that it got my vote:
As with my cancer diagnosis, it’s hard to avoid thundering cliches when writing about the start of my relationship with Doris, and hard not to make it sound either Dickensian or uncannily close to the fairy tales we have in the back of our minds. ‘It’s like something out of a fairy story’ was a phrase people often said to me when they learned how I got to live with Doris. To which I would answer yes, or sort of, or say nothing at all.
11. Dead End on Silk Road by David Kushner (Rolling Stone) – In beautifully controlled prose and scrupulous reporting, David Kushner in this Rolling Stone piece tells the harrowing story of the “Silk Road,” a backstage illicit shadow-Internet of crime, and of Ross Ulbricht, who for years oversaw the Silk Road as “Dread Pirate Roberts,” profiteering enormously and casually ordering the deaths of buyers and sellers who crossed him, until finally the Feds caught up with him. Kushner sifts through the evidentiary record and unfailingly sniffs out the best bits:
Though DPR was careful to keep a distance from his customers, he occasionally lifted the veil slightly – after Green helped the seller unload a kilo of coke to a buyer for $27,000 worth of Bitcoins, DPR reached out to him. “Congrats on the sale,” DPR wrote, initiating an exchange in which he later referenced his girlfriend. Curious about how DPR managed his double life, the seller asked, “Does she know who you are? … Dread, I mean.”
“No way,” DPR replied. “Maybe never.”
“How can you hide that from her? I have to guess that [you are] spending at least 10 to 12 hours a day on SR.”
“I’ve become good at hiding,” DPR replied.
10. This Old Man by Roger Angell (The New Yorker) – Legendary writer Roger Angell’s piece in The New Yorker this year about being 90 was remarkable not only for its unsparing clarity but also for its ideological flexibility. Readers over a certain age will find themselves nodding at every one of his sudden-seeming realizations:
My list of names is banal but astounding, and it’s barely a fraction, the ones that slip into view in the first minute or two. Anyone over sixty knows this; my lists is only longer. I don’t go there often, but, once I start, the battalion of the dead is on duty, alertly waiting. Why do they sustain me so, cheer me up, remind me of life? I don’t understand this. Why am I not endlessly grieving?
9. Veronese’s ‘Allegories of Love’ by T. J. Clark (TLS) – The mighty TLS is seldom represented in this year-end list, mainly because the journal concentrates so heavily on task-specific book reviews that don’t lend themselves to stand-alone virtuoso writing. This extremely thought-provoking piece by T. J. Clark about the great Veronese was the first of two happy exceptions this year:
Veronese has a Shakespearean ability to use the sensuous and structural qualities of his medium – the exact disposition of light, space, colour and figure within the picture rectangle – to make standard materials mutate. And surely the main task of art history is to give an account of how ‘As would be expected …’ is no answer.
8. The Greatest Showbiz Book Ever Written by Frank Rich (New York) – As a matter of course, I try never to miss anything that Frank Rich writes, and since I’m already a big fan of Moss Hart’s Act One, I read this long appreciation of the book with avid interest – and I wasn’t disappointed:
What lifts Act One above other riveting backstage sagas and rags-to-riches success stories is the loneliness and sadness the hero has to overcome. “I have a pet theory of my own, probably invalid, that the theater is an inevitable refuge of the unhappy child,” Hart writes early in the book, no doubt knowing full well that his theory is valid.
7. In the Egosphere by Adam Mars-Jones (The London Review of Books) – This epic-length and very polite career-evisceration of Philip Roth by the brilliant Adam Mars-Jones is electrifying from start to finish, even for somebody like me, who’s been eviscerating Roth’s writings for thirty years. Mars-Jones’s piece is full of great quotes (“Having the rug pulled from under your feet certainly gives you a fresh perspective on the ceiling, but it’s also likely to breed chronic mistrust of rugs,” and many other examples) and also a delightful number of challenging broader pronouncements:
Postmodern games have a necrotising effect on a novel’s flesh. The dispiriting thing about literary postmodernism is that it reinforces the writer at the expense of the reader in what was already an asymmetrical relationship.
6. Blood on the Sand by Matthew Power (Outside) – This Matthew Power piece from Outside is the hauntingly sad story of young Jairo Mora Sandoval, who spent his brief adult life protecting the great sea turtles who beach themselves on the sands of Costa Rica in order to lay their eggs. Sandoval was killed by bandit egg-poachers, and Power’s piece makes no bones about his heroic status:
Just a few weeks before his death, Mora told a newspaper reporter that threats were increasing and the police were ignoring Wildcast’s pleas for help. He called his mother, Fernanda, every night before he went on patrol, asking for her blessing. When Lizano saw Fernanda at Mora’s funeral, she asked for her forgiveness.
“Sweetie,” Fernanda replied, Jairo wanted to be there. It was his thing.”
And “Blood on the Sand” is doubly sad, because Power himself – as talented and friendly a young feature-writer as ever drew breath – died suddenly of heat stroke in 2014, with this and a handful of other pieces standing now as his memorials.
5. Losing Aaron by Janelle Nanos (Boston) – When Aaron Swartz hanged himself in 2013, the emotional ripples shot out in all directions (starting with Tim Berners-Lee’s ridiculous “Let us weep” tweet, but generally improving from there), and one of the most touching I’ve encountered so far was this piece by Janelle Nanos for Boston magazine about Aaron’s father Bob and his own torturous attempts to deal with the tragedy – including a quite natural layer of anger:
In March, Bob made his way back to campus for Aaron’s memorial service. He wrote the words he would speak that day in his office in the Media Lab building. Dressed in a dark-gray suit, he stood at the podium and cited the work of other digital visionaries who flouted the law: Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, and the founder of Polaroid, Edwin Land. “These people did exactly what MIT told them to do, they colored outside the lines … but today’s MIT destroys those kinds of people,” he said.
4. Never Out of the Storm by Tim Kendall (TLS) – This gorgeous, lightning-quick piece by Tim Kendall from the TLS deals with the lyricist Ivor Gurney, a WWI veteran whose querulous, yearning regard for his own poetry (neglected even while he was still alive and certainly ever since) is nicely captured by Kendall:
Then, with his greatest work still to write, Gurney was dropped, his manuscripts returned again and again until he gave up trying. “Surely this is a good poem,” he would write in cover letters to editors, bewildered as he was by repeated rejection. Pleading got him nowhere: he never published a third volume, and died of tuberculosis on Boxing Day 1937, aged forty-seven, with a reputation primarily as a gifted composer who had not quite realized his potential. The poetry was all but forgotten.
3. Gombe Family Album by David Quammen (National Geographic) – The mighty National Geographic magazine fielded dozens of first-rate pieces in 2014, but the one that struck me most sharply was an interview by naturalist David Quammen with Jane Goodall about her time with the chimpanzees of Gombe … an interview during which she relates my personal favorite of her life-story anecdotes:
It was a bit shocking to be told I’d done everything wrong. Everything. I shouldn’t have given them names. I couldn’t talk about their personalities, their minds, or their feelings. Those are unique to us. Fortunately, I thought back to my first teacher, when I was a child, who taught me that that wasn’t true. And that was my dog, Rusty. You cannot share your life in a meaningful way with any kind of animal with a reasonably well developed brain and not realize that animals have personalities.
2. Cage Wars by Deb Olin Unferth (Harper’s) – The subject of the factory farming of produce animals has generated quite a few articles and books in the last few years, and this piece by Deb Olin Unferth in Harper’s stands out for its fantastically readable evocation of what chickens themselves are actually like:
In nature chickens live in smallish groups in overlapping territories. They have complicated cliques and can recognize more than a hundred other chicken faces, even after months of separation. They recognize human faces too. They have distinct voices and talk among themselves, even before they hatch. A hen talks to her eggs and the embryos answer, peeping and twittering through the shells.
And the best thing I encountered in the Penny Press in 2014:
1. The Fiction in the New Yorker – From the very first week of the year and straight on through with hardly a dud week in the year, the New Yorker has had the single greatest run of short stories in its long and venerable history. I ordinarily feel about New Yorker fiction pretty much the same as everybody else does: it’s well-done but predictable, intelligent but Upper West Side anodyne, as free of challenge as it is of outright tedium. But in 2014, that picture was radically altered; through some backstage editorial shifting or higher-caliber slush-pile interns or whatever the reason might be, the fiction in the New Yorker has all year been brightly, insistently re-energized – hell, even the artwork and layout looks to my eye to be receiving extra loving care. And the results have been electrifying: stories like “Here’s the Story” by David Gilbert, “Ba Baboon” by Thomas Pierce, “The Big Cat” by Louise Erdrich, “Eykelboom” by Brad Watson, “Original Sins” by Kirstin Valdez Quade, “Last Meal at Whole Foods” by Said Sayrafiezadeh, “Motherlode” by Thomas McGuane, “The Pink House” by Rebecca Curtis, “Wagner in the Desert” by Greg Jackson, and (a personal favorite, for obvious dog-related reasons) “Madame Lazarus” by Maile Meloy – these and dozens of other stories have confidently reclaimed the whole term “New Yorker fiction.” No idea if it’ll stay this way in the new year, but in 2014 it was the best thing I read In the Penny Press.