It started with The Washington Post.
Elementary school mornings, and for all the rest of his school days until he left for university, over a breakfast of eggs and mint tea with sugar added, he started with the comics, then leafed through the A section to the editorials pages to look at the political cartoon drawn by HERBLOCK – the name always signed in all caps and no spacing. Sundays were better: the issues huge because of the advertising inserts, the Post weekly magazine, Parade, and extended format color comics: Peanuts, Doonesbury, and later Bloom County and Calvin and Hobbes. When he was old enough not to get carded, he looked at the inserts to see what beer was on sale.
It was the newspaper of Katherine Graham, Ben Bradlee, his salon madame Sally Quinn, the one hit wonders Woodward and Bernstein (but what a hit), and his mother’s favorites: Art Buchwald and on Sundays she laughed as she read Dave Barry. The paper’s sports writer, Tom Boswell, wrote a fine book about golf, Strokes of Genius; Judith Martin told the uncertain how to behave (Miss Manners); and Janet Cooke fabricated a story about a child heroin addict that for a while won a Pulitzer Prize.
His mother kept the issues of the day Nixon resigned, but then gave them to a vague, unpleasant man who was dating one of the Texas cousins – happily they broke up, and he never returned the newspapers. Two essays by the Post’s Henry Allen, ‘Can We Be Not Serious’ and ‘Summer Places’ remained some of his favorite pieces, and some of the best writing, ever. In ‘Can We Be Not Serious’, written in 1992 about a case of national malaise, Allen wrote:
We need Mozart, Cole Porter, the best of Sonny and Cher.
We need to do less work, a lot less work.
We need restaurants where you can sit around and smoke cigarettes and drink wine and talk for hours.
We need more movies where people talk well under good lighting, and fewer movies where things go in or out of human bodies.
We need women wielding the ultimate weapon against sexual harassment – not consciousness raising, legislation, or lawsuits, but the weapon no man can withstand: laughter.
We need to think more like Italians.
In writing about vacation homes, which for Allen were mainly in the East and generally the northeast and New England, he wrote in ‘Summer Places’:
Summer houses are where you believe that you become the Real You, and the rest of the year you’re a ghost in the unreal city, wandering around like somebody looking for a car lost in a shopping center parking lot. Back home you get mail addressed to “Dear Occupant,” “Dear Student,” and “Dear Lucky Winner.”
For a time he also read the afternoon newspaper, The Evening Star, also called The Washington Star. In middle school he delivered the Star to earn money which he used to buy a new Raleigh Gran Prix ten speed (red and black, bought at the Bike Rack). His mother, an insomniac, decided to put her early morning hours to work by delivering the Post in their middle class, white, mostly Republican neighborhood. Why not?
Old newspapers were stacked in a wooden holder in the basement, between the furnace and the fireplace ash clean-out, which caught the ash from the living room fireplace. Old papers were used to start winter fires, taped to the floor for painting projects, or were recycled. He can still remember the smell of newspaper, dried musty ink on thin paper.
Although he didn’t recognize it at the time, the problem was compounded by The New Yorker. He grew up with that magazine, and it was everywhere: one year his sister wall papered the basement bathroom with covers from the magazine. The covers were memorable, there were many cartoons, and the marginalia – ‘Notes From All Over’, ‘Block That Metaphor’, and ‘Constabulary’ – were curious and sometimes funny. From the November 11, 1974 issue, at the end of an article, this blurb and comment:
Strong wants to be mayor and he says, “I feel several things I am interested in are not completed, one being the pollution of Naples Bay. I think we are on the road to getting it done.” Naples (Fla.) Star
Kind of thing you have to stay right with.
In the February 28, 2008 issue, a ‘Block That Metaphor’:
From the Los Angeles Times: As Vice President Al Gore arrives in Los Angeles today for a two-day California visit, two distinct Republican groups are trying to rain on his bandwagon.
It was The New Yorker before photographs, one issue profiled the CEO of Schlumberger in an article called ‘A Certain Poetry’; in another issue a movie review called one of the Star Trek movies, where among other things whales are rescued from extinction, “wonderful dumb fun.” George Booth’s cartoons of cats, dogs, mechanics, and gardeners – “aphids in the heliotrope!” – were drawn with a warped whimsy. Full page advertisements emphasized conspicuous consumption: Catherine Deneuve, blond, French, and sexy, selling Chanel No. 5; Mark Cross pens, Pan Am and TWA to what was then an obscure and exotic sounding location, and write in cut out order forms (stamps and envelopes needed) for the Vermont Country Store. Starting around Labor Day the issues got thicker and heavier, bloated with ads for the holiday season, then the first issue after Christmas were anemic, thin, maybe twenty pages total, half of them the round up movie reviews.
For some years he and his brother shared a subscription to Car and Driver. This was before all cars started to look the same, and French cars were still sold in the United States. There was a review about a new Pontiac, a muscle car built the start of the first oil crisis: the 1973 Firebird Trans-Am with a 455cc engine, and in white with blue strips was Pontiac’s best looking car and the best looking Firebird, ever. He still wants that car. In another issue two editors drove a pair of Corvettes the length of the Al-Can Highway – is that sort of job still available? He never cared much for car racing, but he remembers a nice tribute to Mark Donohue. One day he read a review of a car from England, from the makers of the Austin Healey, but this car was called a Jensen Healey, and once in a while, dreams did come true. It had a Lotus 907 (same engine as the Europa), 1973cc, 140hp, dual overhead cams, 16 valves, twin carburetors Stromberg 175-CD2 (he did that from memory, he did not look it up). He dreams of owning one again.
To this day he is still unsure about the Car and Driver issue reviewing the latest convertibles, if the pretty model on the cover was really topless.
Time magazine was also in his house, but it was never engaging. As images, charts, and diagrams, a la USA Today, replaced words and thoughtful writing, so Time became just another magazine.
His high school library gave no hint of things to come. The only thing of interest was Paris Match because it had pictures of topless movies stars on the beaches of Cannes. In college there was also little change. Occasionally he had to read some obscure academic journal, Speculum, and once in a while he bought a Sunday New York Times, and that took up the rest of the day.
The condition worsened when he started work, but not because of the work itself, but rather because of the variety of people he met, and the things they read. At one software company, he noticed a left of center co-worker, she played the French horn, reading The Wall Street Journal, and when asked her why, she answered it was for the Journal’s classical music and opera reviews. He started reading the Journal, then eventually took out a subscription. The editorial page was written as if it were a prop for an Ayn Rand play, but the editors were gracious enough to sometimes print his letters. Outside of the opinion sections, the paper and the writers could be exceptional: Jonathan Clements on finance, Dorothy Rabinowitz covering the Amiraults (later to become the book No Crueler Tyrannies), Walt Mossberg on technology (although software teams that built Windows products called him Walt Macberg for his preference for all things Apple), and John Lippman on the disadvantages of reading in cyberspace (“I am hopelessly linear”).
Even though he lived on the west coast, the Journal came to his house first five mornings a week, then the paper added a Saturday version. To this he added the Post’s National Weekly Edition and the Sunday New York Times. In those days he also subscribed to The New Yorker, and now it was hard to keep up with all that reading, and this didn’t include his book reading. He would eventually drop the Journal when the right became too diseased to tolerate, and that was even before Murdoch took over.
He didn’t read much about his work, it was just his job – neither in the technology magazines nor the business cheerleading publications. Once in a while he read Wired or Red Herring, but never regularly and certainly he never subscribed.
At another company a friend, a forward thinking Montana truck driver and software engineer, introduced him to The Wilson Quarterly, and Harper’s. He read only a couple of issues of the Quarterly, but Harper’s opened up new vistas: it was like cresting a ridgeline on Highway 50 through Nevada: you see an almost endless basin ahead of you, a long refreshing view, unlike anything you’re seen before. Harper’s was the first of the big three.
Harper’s: Lewis Lapham – just about anything will do; Richard Hofstadter’s ‘The Paranoid Style in American Politics’, which he found in the archives, and what should be required reading for all; Mark Slouka’s excellent 2008 essay on obedience and the boss culture in American society – ‘Democracy and Deference’:
There’s another possibility, of course – not a pretty one. Maybe we’re not out on the street protesting this administration’s abuses of power because we’re no longer the people we once were, because we’ve been effectively bred for docility, trained to defer to our leaders even though they reveal themselves, over and over again, to be dishonorable, incompetent men, even though they rob us of what is rightfully ours, then present us with the bill of the removal of our legacy.
Of course there’s more: Rebecca Solnit and Peter Scrag writing about California; Kevin Baker, Scot Horton, and John Berger writing about Monet:
Standing before the painting [Petit Ailly, Varengevill, plein soleil (1897)] you can let your eye lose itself, as it follows the “commas” of touch after touch of oil paint. These countless touches then interweave to make not a cloth but a basket of sunlight, containing every imaginable summer sound of the Normandy coast, until this basket becomes your own afternoon.
At another company an eccentric but competent developer, he was also a middle distance runner, gave him a copy of The New York Review of Books (NYRB). As with Harper’s, so with the NYRB, which became the second of the big three: and again new vistas opened up. Received truths were reinterpreted and sometimes discarded. Myths shattered. Joan Didion, in a review called ‘The Deferential Spirit’, called Bob Woodward a stenographer:
What seems most remarkable in this new Woodward book [The Choice] is exactly what seemed remarkable in the previous Woodward books, each of which was presented as the insiders’ inside story and each of which went on to become a number-one best-seller: these are books in which measurable cerebral activity is virtually absent.
Martha Nussbaum punctured Allen Bloom’s gaseous Closing of the American Mind, Elizabeth Hardwick eviscerated William Manchester’s Death of a President, and Gore Vidal, writing about John Hersey, found the famous Hiroshima to be short of the mark:
Of course Mr. Hersey is to be praised for avoiding emotional journalism and overt editorializing (though a week of reading Emile Zola might do him good); yet despite his properly nervous preface, he does not seem to realize that the only point to writing serious journalism is to awaken in the reader not only the sense of how something was, but the apprehension of why it was, and to what moral end the recorder is leading us, protesting or not. Mr. Hersey is content to give us mere facts
He didn’t always agree with all that was written, but the alternate perspectives were intelligent and coherent. And it continues with the NYRB: Charles Simic, Tim Parks, Sue Halpern, Elizabeth Drew, David Bromwich.
The third of the big three appeared just two years ago: The London Review of Books. He’s not sure how he came to it, but he was able get a paper version in the small village where he lived. In the LRB were generally longer pieces, and new writers, some of whom overlapped with the NYRB: Frank Kermode, John Lancaster, Nicholas Spice, Mary Beard, Penelope Fitzgerald.
Sometimes he got his wires crossed. There were a trio of Phillips: Philip Roth, Philip Larkin, and Phillip Lopate – American novelist, English poet, American essayist. There were the EW’s, not counting E.B.White: Edmund White, Edmund Wilson, E.O.Wilson who were writer, writer, and biologist. Then there were all those initialed writers, reviewers, and reviewed, the following just a sample:
A. D. Nutall
A. J. P. Taylor
C.P. Snow (as it happens our reader found at his rental in Montpellier a book about an English mathematician – G.H. Hardy; Snow wrote the introduction)
D. A. N. Jones
J.K. Rowling (a personal favorite for her grit and generosity)
W. H. Auden
In the case of the authors who created magical and alternative worlds (CS, JRR, JK), he wondered why no one outside the British Isles had done this as well as these three. Was it where they were from, or that they initialed their names? Or something else? And why didn’t JK make the main character female – he really wants to ask her.
Books reviews he read in other publications, say the Post or Journal or even The New Yorker he now considered lightweight affairs compared to the breadth and depth of those found in the NYRB and LRB. Newspaper reviews didn’t provide much background or context, and quite often were simply summaries of the book. In contrast, the writers at the NYRB and LRB worked in the fields they wrote about, or if journalists they had covered those fields for many years: Jeff Madrick (an economist) on economics, Marcia Angell (a doctor) on medicine and health, and Thomas Lynch (funeral home director) on death.
In recent years technologies had improved such that these publications could now be read on electronic devices, and although the experience was secondary to reading the real paper or journal. Like his mother, he had insomnia, so at night on his tablet he reads the back issues of the big three: NYRB went back to 1963, LRB back to 1979, and Harper’s, 1850.
He knows there are other publications out there lurking and circling. Like sitting in the lineup in the cold waters off Bolinas, thinking about other possibilities did no good. If you start thinking about getting chomped by a great white instead of concentrating on catching waves, you may as well just paddle in and be done with it for the day, and so it was with The Times Literary Supplement, The Baffler, Lapham’s Quarterly, and others – unread and best not to think about it.
When reading, some days he thinks his heart will burst with the joy of knowledge, from well written ideas and impressions, the insight, even clarity, although it would be too arrogant to say enlightenment. Other days, in the swamp of despair, he becomes aware of his feeble understanding of it all and his limited progress, he feels dull, a clod.
Until he turns the page.