About a year ago I toyed with the idea of reading every single Profile that ever appeared in The New Yorker, a project surely to be measured in decades rather than years. I didn’t get very far with that one. (I did read a few of the very first Profiles, mainly because they’re super short.)
As 2008 wanes and 2009 commences, I’ve downsized to a more manageable project. With the aid of a random number generator, I intend to read a randomly selected Profile every now and then. There are few undertakings that can’t be improved by the I Ching, I reckon, not that I’ve ever had occasion to use it.
I took the system out for a test drive last night, and it worked like a charm. The random number generator steered me to “1952” (represented by year “28” out of 84) and then to the number “1” Profile of that year (out of 19), which happens to be a three-parter by A. J. Liebling, dated January 5 to 19, on the immensely promising subject of Chicago.
It’s a complete disgrace.
I’m not familiar with the city at all, but a few times in my life I’ve encountered the trademark Chicago Boast, which I find only mildly irritating and mostly charming. Liebling seems to find in that tic an occasion for an all-out attack on the city. New York has its rivalries, with Chicago, with Boston, with Washington, with Los Angeles…. but frankly, this does not seem an outgrowth of any such dynamic, it seems purely personal—to wit, Liebling himself just powerfully disliked Chicago (where he lived for a year or so before writing the Profile).
Liebling relies strongly on the injudicious use of personal anecdote, most of which are chosen to point up the provincialism, insularity, paranoia, corruption etc. etc. that he finds so typical of the city. Liebling writes well, and he keeps it moving, but the articles feel like piling on. Right from the very first page, the exercise feels lazy.
A comparison with Christopher Rand’s 1966 Profile of Los Angeles, published a mere fourteen years later, would, I think, serve as an object lesson of the maturity of the magazine during these years, primarily attributable, I would imagine, to the magazine’s editor starting in 1952, William Shawn. (Of course, it’s possible that the culture at large was maturing in certain ways as well.) On the other hand, Harold Ross had died in December; perhaps the issues that appeared over the next few weeks aren’t the best measure of anyone’s abilities.
So far, so good. We’ll see what randomness brings us next time.
Hello! I’m Emily Gordon, a content strategist, critic, and copywriter. Emdashes, born in 2004, spent its formative years as a New Yorker fan blog. (The project garnered some nice compliments and press.) It’s now a collection of conversations—generally civilized—about punctuation, magazines, movies, design, and other things that stir me.
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