Emdashes—Modern Times Between the Lines

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Did you hear last week’s This American Life? Act Three, the story of how a guy named Eric can’t seem to buy himself a couch, has some nice echoes of one of my favorite prose pieces of all time, Donald Antrim’s “I Bought a Bed” (which, of course, originally appeared in The New Yorker and is now a chapter in Antrim’s mesmerizing book The Afterlife).

I’m happy to report that Scott McLemee, whose well-hewn and polished thoughts I’ve been enjoying for some time via his column for Inside Higher Ed (I like this recent one about disorganization), has a brand new blog, wittily titled Quick Study. I will be one, I hope, of it. If I were to presume to tell The New Yorker what public intellectuals and potential contributors it is overlooking, my A-list would consist of McLemee.

Speaking of great brains, here’s James Wolcott (and Stephen Manzi) on his fellow great James, Thurber; meanwhile, Popsurfing’s Michael Giltz reflects on the Shawn family, whom he compares to Salinger’s Glasses and Anderson’s Royal Tenenbaums.

R.I.P., Ryszard Kapuscinski (the accents just aren’t coming out right), whose travel-memoir essay “The Open World” is in this week’s New Yorker. (So are two poems, “A Choice” and Ecce Homo”—both are web-only.) Slate reminds us of a 2003 “Culturebox” column by Meghan O’Rourke, in which she “defended literary journalists—including Kapuscinski—who bend the rules of literal truth-telling in order to tell a bigger story.” O’Rourke begins:
Joseph Mitchell’s Old Mr. Flood is a great book. It’s as vivid a portrait of the Fulton Fish Market and of working-class life in New York City as any we have. Old Mr. Flood is also partly invented. Though it was first presented as journalism—most of it ran as magazine pieces in The New Yorker in 1944—Mitchell revealed in the book’s preface some four years later that Mr. Flood was a composite character, as Jack Shafer recently noted in Slate.

With the reappearance of Stephen Glass and the dismissal of Jayson Blair, a certain kind of rule-bending literary journalism has taken it on the chin. Mitchell and other respected sometime-“fabulists”—including A.J. Liebling and Ryszard Kapuscinski—have been lightly tarred and feathered along with the black-listed young journalists. After all, the argument goes, the realms of Fact and Fiction are diametrically opposed. There is no truth but the plain truth. The very currency of journalism is fact; to toy with it once is to devalue it (and your integrity) permanently, whether you are a great stylist or a hack.

This line of reasoning is entirely logical. And yet too rigid an adherence to such standards would mean an impoverishment of American journalism—one that seems unthinkable. There’d be no Old Mr. Flood, no The Honest Rainmaker, by A.J. Liebling; some work by New Journalists like Tom Wolfe, Gay Talese, and Norman Mailer would go in the trash. John Hersey is said to have created a composite character in a Life magazine story; does this mean we should think differently of his masterpiece Hiroshima?
And R.I.P., too, Elizabeth Tashjian, who seems to have been, among many other things, the subject of a New Yorker piece.
Elizabeth Tashjian, the celebrated Old Lyme artist and free spirit, was known by millions as the “Nut Lady” after her museum devoted to nuts that she operated for many years in her 17-room mansion. In her characteristic style, she told a writer for The New Yorker magazine several years ago that she never liked being called the “Nut Lady,” but that it was preferable to being known as the state’s certified nut…. As a young woman from an aristocratic Armenian family, she had studied classical art and was well-regarded for her work. Her artistic and independent temperament drew her to the nut, which she drew, painted and sculpted. Her creations were displayed in her Old Lyme Nut Museum, which was listed by the state of Connecticut on its list of tourist attractions until 1988.
Anyone have a working Complete New Yorker (this computer doesn’t like the discs) who can check it out? Squib Report, any interest in pursuing it? It sounds promising, and she sounds like a treasure. I reject a world without eccentrics.
Finally, Newsday columnist Sylvia Carter, my former Newsday colleague, writes a fond reminiscence of the neighborhood life and food in Manhattan she relished before moving out to the Island:
I miss my working fireplace, and I miss the high ceilings and the wide plank floors. I miss being able to walk outside my door and instantly become part of a city. It is a city of dogs and their walkers, a city where The New Yorker magazine almost always arrived on Monday instead of Tuesday or Wednesday. Babbo, the famous restaurant where Mario Batali is chef and an owner, was across the street, and he used to sit on my stoop and chat, city-style.
But for non-Manhattanite New Yorkers, it does not arrive on Monday, but on Tuesday, Wednesday, or even Thursday. I’ve long railed against this imbalance, which suggests an embarrassingly old-fashioned bias in the circulation department’s priorities. Readers in the five boroughs of New York City, when do you get your magazine?


I’ll have something in a jiffy.

I live in west Harlem, and get my TNY Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays… whenever! Mind you, even the Cartoonbank doesn’t get their TNY consistently on a Monday — you can always tell when they get theirs by how soon the newest cartoons are online: they wait for the magazine to arrive, and then they scan the cartoons. Funny, eh? I don’t think there’s a bias. I think it’s the Post Office, slacking off completely aribtrarily. Perhaps we should ask them about it!

You think you have it tough. My copy of the Jan 15 issue arrived in the mail yesterday. Granted, I live in Finland, but that’s no excuse.

(Okay, maybe that is a good reason.)

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