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New Yorker Joys in the Penny Press!

By (March 22, 2013) No Comment




Last week’s New Yorker started off with a letter, written by Jane Scholz, that I’ll quote in full:


As is the case with the tragic death of Aaron Swartz, the tragic death of any young person is an incredibly sad event, wharever the cause. I object, however, to the effort of some of the people featured in [Larissa] MacFarquhar’s piece to turn Swartz into a hero for facing government prosecution after hacking the JSTOR archive. Swartz was apparently familiar with laws protecting proprietary-information-management systems, so he should not have been surprised by the severity of the prosecution’s response to his crime. It is a crime, and not a victimless one. I am a retired journalist; during my working years, my salary depended, and today my pension relies, on people paying for copyrighted content. In recent years, as the business that supports journalism has declined, thousand of journalists have lost pay, benefits, and, ultimately, their jobs. Some people may consider illegally downloading content from the “1942 edition of the Journal of Botany” to be benign, but downloading periodicals such as the New York Times – or The New Yorker, for that matter – without paying for them would harm the people who worked for those publications in the past and who write for them today. I find it ironic that Swartz made several million dollars selling the rights to his own copyrighted programming to Conde Nast. Swartz’s is a sad story, but it’s not a heroic one.

And toward the end of the issue, there’s a great piece by Giles Harvey that I wish I could quote in full. It’s about the flourishing sub-genre of the failure memoir:

A growing batch of memoirs by literary screw-ups and also-rans suggests that mistakes – the bigger and more luridly described the better – might be a portal to the success, or, at the very least, the solvency, that eluded their authors the first time around. The formula is simple: when all else fails, write about your failure.

Harvey skewers a long list of such annoying books, and it’s low-key glorious to watch (the article’s only misstep occurs when Harvey bizarrely calls it “a conspicuously male genre” even though a whopping 90 percent of all failure-memoirs to hit big money have been written by women).

new yorkerBut even Harvey’s article isn’t the highlight of this issue (if you’re searching for it on your newsstand, look for a cover the color of urine-soaked manilla with a small child’s drawing of some kind of giant corseted high heeled shoe in the center). No, the highlight comes from what is always, for me, the least likely source: a piece of writing about dog ownership. Ordinarily, I stand by my hard-won rule that nobody on the planet should be allowed to write about dogs except me, but this piece, “A Box of Puppies” by Lena Dunham, is so good I’ll gladly make an exception.

In it, she tells us all about her childhood yearning for a dog – a yearning thwarted first by her angry parents and then later in her life by her boyfriend. When she finally does adopt a mutt named Lamby from a shelter, he starts to develop a problem right away: he’s sound-sensitive, setting up an eerie wailing when something he hears upsets him. Dunham never even considers dumping the dog back at the shelter, and her essay’s soaringly great conclusion is likewise worth quoting in full:

At 5:07 a.m., I crawl to the end of the bed to meet him. I ruffle his ears, whisper, “It’s O.K., I’m here. I’ve been waiting for you for so long. Before I even knew about you, I was waiting for you. When you were born, I was only twenty-five years old. I had a boyfriend I didn’t love, but I told him that I did and he made me a pencil case, so I didn’t even know I needed you. But I needed you.” Lamby is growling, but more softly now. He still doesn’t like the scene downstairs, the coughing and the woman’s frustrated, tired caretaker rising to check on her.

“And the rest of the months I waited for you, and now here you are.”

Once, in a friend’s office, I saw a childhood picture of her husband on which he’d drawn a thought bubble saying, “I can’t wait to meet you, it’s going to take a long time, and there will be a lot of trouble along the way, but this is how it must be.” It struck me as impossibly romantic, the nicest thing you could say to someone, really. “I’m not going anywhere,” I tell Lamby.

He wakes up only one more time in the night, with a single bark that trails into silence.

I kiss his little mouth, his ears that smell like corn chips and old water. “Sh-h-h …I love you. I love you. I love you so much.” There is no one to call for help. We don’t need any help. He is mine, and I am old enough to have him. We are all adults here.