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Posts Tagged ‘Adam Gopnik’

04 MARCH, 2013

Cultural Icons on Criticism

By:

Twain, Sontag, Bradbury, Hitchens, Didion, and more.

In researching my recent piece for Harvard’s quarterly Nieman Reports, exploring the role of the critic as celebrator, I found myself sifting through bountiful marginalia on the subject of criticism, culled from a decade’s worth of reading. Here are some favorites.

Susan Sontag in As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh: Journals and Notebooks, 1964-1980:

Reading criticism clogs conduits through which one gets new ideas: cultural cholesterol.

Mark Twain in Mark Twain’s Notebook:

The critic’s symbol should be the tumble-bug: he deposits his egg in somebody else’s dung, otherwise he could not hatch it.

Ezra Pound in A Few Don’ts by an Imagiste:

Pay no attention to the criticism of men who have never themselves written a notable work.

Virginia Woolf in The Common Reader, Second Series:

[Critics] are only able to help us if we come to them laden with questions and suggestions won honestly in the course of our own reading. They can do nothing for us if we herd ourselves under their authority and lie down like sheep in the shade of a hedge. We can only understand their ruling when it comes in conflict with our own and vanquishes it.

Bertrand Russell in A Liberal Decalogue:

Do not fear to be eccentric in opinion, for every opinion now accepted was once eccentric.

John Updike in Picked-Up Pieces:

Submit to whatever spell, weak or strong, is being cast. Better to praise and share than blame and ban.

Ray Bradbury, warmly irreverent as ever, in Zen and the Art of Writing:

I have never listened to anyone who criticized my taste in space travel, sideshows or gorillas. When this occurs, I pack up my dinosaurs and leave the room.

Adam Gopnik in The New Yorker:

Criticism serves a lower end than art does, and has little effect on it, but by conveying value it serves a civilizing end.

Oscar Wilde in The Critic as Artist (Upon the Importance of Doing Nothing and Discussing Everything):

Yes: I am a dreamer. For a dreamer is one who can only find his way by moonlight, and his punishment is that he sees the dawn before the rest of the world.

Eleanor Roosevelt in You Learn By Living:

If you consider that you are being criticized by someone who is seeking knowledge and has an open mind, then you naturally feel you must try to meet that criticism. But if you feel that the criticism is made out of sheer malice and that no amount of explanation will change a point of view which has nothing to do with the facts, then the best thing is to put it out of your mind entirely.

Zadie Smith in a Granta interview about writing fiction, with an insight that applies to any art and echoes Bertrand Russell’s wisdom on creation vs. destruction:

Whenever I write a novel I’m reminded of the essential hubris of criticism. When I write criticism I’m in such a protected position: here are my arguments, here are my blessed opinions, here is my textual evidence, here my rhetorical flourish. One feels very pleased with oneself. Fiction has none of these defences. You are just a fool with a keyboard. It’s much harder. More frightening.

Theodore Roosevelt in The Man in the Arena: Selected Writings of Theodore Roosevelt:

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

Terry McMillan in Why We Write: 20 Acclaimed Authors on How and Why They Do What They Do:

The thing is, the critics hate you when you become commercially successful. They look for stuff to find wrong.

Christopher Hitchens in God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything:

What can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence.

F. Scott Fitzgerald in A Life in Letters :

I dont mind critisism a bit— — the critics are always wrong … but they are always right in the sense that they make one re-examine one’s artistic conscience.

Joan Didion echoes a similar sentiment in this 1977 Paris Review interview, collected in The Paris Review Interviews, Vols. 1-4:

A certain amount of resistance is good for anybody. It keeps you awake.

Anaïs Nin in The Diary of Anais Nin, Vol. 4: 1944-1947:

I fear criticism because I fear it will destroy my spontaneity. I fear restrictions. I live by impulse and improvisation, and want to write the same way.

Anaïs Nin in The Diary of Anaïs Nin, Vol. 5: 1947-1955:

I find in American life an excess of harshness, criticism, little capacity for admiration.

Neil Gaiman, in his fantastic advice to those embarking upon life in the arts:

Someone on the internet thinks what you’re doing is stupid, or evil, or it’s all been done before? Make good art.

And when all else fails, some modern wisdom:

Complement with more collected wisdom from luminaries on the subjects of art, science, love, daily writing routines, and the meaning of life.

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07 NOVEMBER, 2012

The Big New Yorker Book of Dogs

By:

“Dogs are not about something else. Dogs are about dogs.”

Dogs have enjoyed a long track record as fiction heroes, photography models, and subjects of scientific curiosity. But they’ve also had an admirable history of inhabiting the spectrum between trope and muse for some of literary history’s greatest talent. The Big New Yorker Book of Dogs (public library) collects such canine-themed gems — fiction, poetry, feature articles, humor, cartoons, cover art, manuscript drafts — from a slew of titans culled from the magazine’s archive, including Brain Pickings regulars E. B. White, Maira Kalman, John Updike, Jonathan Lethem, and Roald Dahl. Divided into four sections — Good Dogs, Bad Dogs, Top Dogs, and Underdogs — and spanning such subjects as evolution, domesticity, love, family, obedience, bereavement, language, and more, the lavishly illustrated 400-page tome is an absolute treat from cover to cover.

Cover by Maira Kalman, February 1, 1999

Malcolm Gladwell writes in the foreword:

A few words about you. You bought this book: several hundred pages on dogs. You are, in other words, as unhealthily involved in the emotional life of dogs as the rest of us. Have you wondered why you bought it? One possible answer is that you see the subject of man’s affection for dogs as a way of examining all sorts of broader issues. Is it the case of a simple thing revealing a great many complex truths? We do a lot of this at The New Yorker. To be honest: I do a lot of this at The New Yorker — always going on and on about how A is just a metaphor for B, and blah, blah, blah. But let’s be clear. You didn’t really buy this boo because of some grand metaphor. Dogs are not about something else. Dogs are about dogs.

Cover by Constantin Alajalov, February 12, 1938

Cover by Mark Ulriksen, June 10, 2002

Cover by Peter Arno, July 22, 1967

From E. B. White comes a playful, heart-warming poem circa 1930:

DOG AROUND THE BLOCK
Dog around the block, sniff,
Hydrant sniffing, corner, grating,
Sniffing, always, starting forward,
Backward, dragging, sniffing backward,
Leash at taut, least at dangle,
Leash in people’s feet entangle—
Sniffing dog, apprised of smellings,
Meeting enemies,
Loving old acquaintances, sniff,
Sniffing hydrant for reminders,
Leg against the wall, raise,
Leaving grating, corner greeting,
Chance for meeting, sniff, meeting,
Meeting, telling, news of smelling,
Nose to tail, tail to nose,
Rigid, careful, pose,
Liking, partly liking, hating,
Then another hydrant, grating,
Leash at taut, leash at dangle,
Tangle, sniff, untangle,
Dog around the block, sniff.

Cover by Peter Arno, March 23, 1935

Cover by Anatol Kovarsky, February 12, 1966

In a piece bearing the deceptively unassuming title “Dog Story,” Adam Gopnik deploys his formidable dual storytelling torpedo of disarming personal anecdote and uncompromising scientific rigor to explore post-Darwinian views on dog domestication:

[C]ountering [Darwin’s] view comes a new view of dog history, more in keeping with our own ostentatiously less man-centered world view. Dogs, we are now told, by a sequence of scientific speculators … domesticated themselves. They chose us. A marginally calmer canid came close to the circle of human warmth — and, more important, human refuse — and was tolerated by the humans inside: let him eat the garbage. Then this scavenging wolf mated with another calm wolf, and soon a family of calmer wolves proliferated just outside the firelight. It wasn’t cub-snatching on the part of humans, but breaking and entering on the part of wolves, that gave us dogs. ‘Hey, you be ferocious and eat them when you can catch them,’ the protodogs said, in evolutionary effect, to their wolf siblings. ‘We’ll just do what they like and have them feed us. Dignity? It’s a small price to pay for free food. Check with you in ten thousand years and we’ll see who’s had more kids.’ (Estimated planetary dog population: one billion. Estimated planetary wild wolf population: three hundred thousand.)

A few pages later, Gopnik’s gentle arrow to the heart of our relationship with dogs:

Dogs have little imagination about us and our inner lives but limitless intuition about them; we have false intuitions about their inner lives but limitless imagination about them. Our relationship meets in the middle.

Cover by Ana Juan, February 8, 2010

Cover by James Thurber, February 29, 1936

In another essay on Thurber, the magazine’s quintessential dog-lover, whose artwork graces the book cover, Gopnik does away with Gladwell’s disclaimer and offers an insightful A-is-a-metaphor-for-B analysis of Thurber’s meta-symbolism:

So why dogs? The answer is simple: for Thurber, the dog chimed with, represented, the American man in his natural state—a state that, as Thurber saw it, was largely scared out of him by the American woman. When Thurber was writing about dogs, he was writing about men. The virtues that seemed inherent in dogs—peacefulness, courage, and stoical indifference to circumstance—were ones that he felt had been lost by their owners. The American man had the permanent jumps, and the American dog did not. The dog was man set free from family obligations, Monastic Man. Dogs ‘would in all probability have averted the Depression, for they can go through lots tougher things than we and still think it’s boom time. They demand very little of their heyday; a kind word is more to them than fame, a soup bone than gold; they are perfectly contented with a warm fire and a good book to chew (preferably an autographed first edition lent by a friend); wine and song they can completely forgo; and they can almost completely forgo women.’ For Thurber, the dog is not man’s best friend so much as man’s sole dodgy ally in his struggle with man’s strangest necessity, woman.

Cover by John Cuneo, June 27, 2011

Cover by Peter de Sevé, April 30, 2012

Cover by Mark Ulriksen, April 11, 2005

Indeed, it is also Gopnik who, in the same essay, captures in just a few short sentences the entire ethos of the book — and the very heart of man’s relationship with dog:

Integrity, even grouchy growling integrity, in a world that doesn’t value it; nobility in a time that doesn’t want it—what Thurber’s dogs do is absurd or even pernicious (they bite people, or drag junk furniture for miles) but demonstrates the necessary triumph of the superfluous. Which is what dogs are all about; it is the canine way. Nothing is less necessary than a pet dog, or more needed. Thurber’s theme is that a dog’s life is spent, as a man’s life should be, doing pointless things that have the solemnity of inner purpose.

Cover by Mark Ulriksen, March 10, 2003

Cover by Mark Ulriksen, July 20, 2001

The Big New Yorker Book of Dogs, which comes on the heels of The New Yorker’s wonderful Blown Covers, offers a delightfully dimensional portrait of the human-canine relationship — and, inevitably, a heartfelt homage to an essential piece of what it means to live as a New Yorker.

Images courtesy of Random House / The New Yorker

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31 JULY, 2012

Twenty Beloved New York Writers on the Magic of Central Park

By:

“You cannot live without establishing an equilibrium between the inner and outer.”

New York has had its share of love letters, old and new and famous and private.

In Central Park: An Anthology (public library), Andrew Blauner collects twenty paeans to this one particular, and particularly beloved, part of the city by twenty of its most celebrated authors. Adrian Benepe promises in the introduction:

Reading this volume is a little like a walk in the park with some truly excellent companions… .
It underscores the fact that Central Park is not simply a geographic destination, nor just the essential masterpiece of landscape architecture and great creative accomplishments of the nineteenth century. Once you add people and time, it becomes a ever-evolving work of art and performance art. It is central to our thinking, our style, and our magnificence.

And the slim but potent volume lives up to that promise.

In “Through the Children’s Gate,” Adam Gopnik brings a dimensional lens to one of New Yorkers’ most persistent and enduring laments: the city’s inescapable pace of change, with its embedded nostalgia for what once was and never will again be:

Still, croissants and crime are not lifestyle choices, to be taken according to taste; the reduction of fear, as anyone who has spent time in Harlem can attest, is a grace as large as any imaginable. To revise Chesterton slightly: People who refuse to be sentimental about the normal things don’t end up being sentimental about nothing; they end up being sentimental about anything, shedding tears over old muggings and the perfect, glittering shards of the little crack vials, sparkling like diamonds in the gutter. Où sont les neiges d’antan?: Who cares if the snows were all of cocaine? We saw them falling and our hearts were glad.

[…]

It is a strange thing to be the serpent in one’s own garden, the snake in one’s own grass. The suburbanization of New York is a fact, and a worrying one, and everyone has moments of real disappointment and distraction. The Soho where we came of age, with its organic intertwinings of art and food, commerce and cutting edge, is unrecognizable to us now— but then that Soho we knew was unrecognizable to its first émigrés, who by then had moved on to Tribeca. This is only to say that in the larger, inevitable human accounting of New York, there are gains and losses, a zero sum of urbanism: The great gain of civility and peace is offset by a loss of creative kinds of vitality and variety. (There are new horizons of Bohemia in Brooklyn and beyond, of course, but Brooklyn has its bards already, to sing its streets and smoke, as they will and do. My heart lies with the old island of small homes and big buildings, the sounds coming from one resonating against the sounding board of the other.)

But those losses are inevitably specific. There is always a new New York coming into being as the old one disappears. And that city— or cities; there are a lot of different ones on the same map— has its peculiar pleasures and absurdities as keen as any other’s. The one I awakened to, and into— partly by intellectual affinity, and much more by the ringing of an alarm clock every morning at seven— was the civilization of childhood in New York. The phrase is owed to Iona Opie, the great scholar of children’s games and rhymes, whom I got to interview once. “Childhood is a civilization with its own rules and rituals,” she told me, charmingly but flatly, long before I had children of my own. “Children never refer to each other as children. They call themselves, rightly, people, and tell you what it is that people like them— their people— believe and do.” The Children’s Gate exists; you really can go through it.

May pole in the park, May 1912 (Library of Congress)

In “Framed in Silver,” Mark Helprin reflects on the park through the dusty photographs of his own childhood:

My father and I are in Central Park, on the path that leads from the playground at Ninety-third Street toward the Reservoir. I am about two. It is not long after the war, still the first half of the twentieth century. I know nothing of what has passed. You can see in his face that as someone who was born as the century turned, my father knows perhaps too much. I know nothing of what is to come. Having lived through the great wars and the small, he does. We are walking together, he in a double-breasted great coat, I in an absurd snowsuit. He has a Liberty of London scarf, and his hair is still as black as it was in the desert. I come up to his midthigh, a hood surrounds my face, and on top of it, and my head, is a pompom.

We have passed the playground that was the setting of my first dream, in which I flew from one outcropping of granite to another. Unknowing of the nature of dreams, when I awoke I believed that I had actually flown. I’m holding my father’s hand, or, rather, he is holding mine, which disappears quite easily in his. Confident of his absolute protection, I think that as long as I am tethered and close, nothing can ever hurt me. He knows better.

Although I dreamed that I could fly, I would not have dreamed that someday I would look back upon the invisible paths made by those whom I love and who are gone, that the picture in which I am walking in Central Park with my father would darken over time, like a clock about to mark the inevitable moment in which I will rejoin him. And then, perhaps as now I am aware of the invisible paths made by others, still others might feel, like the breeze you cannot see, the invisible paths made by me.

Portrait of Doris Day and Kitty Kallen, Central Park, April 1947 (Library of Congress)

In “The Colossus of New York,” Colson Whitehead paints a mosaic portrait of the archetypes you’re promised to encounter in the park — the hipsters, the socialite ladies, the entitled parents, the photographers, the lovers. And, of course, the runners:

SO MANY PEOPLE running. Is something chasing them. Yes, something different is chasing each of them and gaining slowly. She feels fit and trim. People remove layers one by one the deeper they get into the park. The sweaters keep falling from their waists no matter how they tie them. The matching strides of the jogging pair give no indication that after she tells her secret he will stop and bend and put his palms to his knees. Like some of the trees here, some of today’s miseries are evergreen. Others merely deciduous. This is his tenth attempt to join the jogging culture. This latest outfit will do the trick. Pant and heave. How much farther. Reservoir of what. Small devices keep track of ingrown miles. Unfold these laps from their tight circuit to make marathons. It’s his best time yet, never to be repeated. If he had known, he would have saved it for after a hard day at the office or a marital argument. Instead all he has is sweat stains to commemorate. One convert says, I’m going to come here every day from now on. It’s so refreshing.

In “Some Music in the Park,” Francine Prose traces the history of the park as a stage for music and politics:

There was nothing neutral about Nina Simone’s performance. She sang “Strange Fruit,” which is about the bodies of lynching victims hanging from trees in the South. She sang “Four Women,” which is about the oppression— slavery, rape, prostitution— of African American women. She sang “Mississippi Goddam,” a song inspired by the murder of Medgar Evers and the church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama, that killed four little girls. Every time she said Goddam, she spit the word at the audience. I had never seen a performer, let alone a woman, let alone a black woman, be that angry on stage. She was telling us that, to paraphrase a saying popular in those days, we were not part of the solution; we were part of the problem.

Kids coasting in the park, ca. 1910-1915 (Library of Congress)

In “The Sixth Borough,” Jonathan Safran Foer (he of Tree of Codes fame) weaves a whimsical alternative mythology, in which a sixth borough mysteriously floats away from the island of Manhattan, but a piece of it is transplanted — literally, lifted off with giant hooks and pulled by the people of New York into its new place — to become what we know as Central Park:

Children were allowed to lie down on the park as it was being moved. This was considered a concession, although no one knew why a concession was necessary, or why it was to children that this concession must be made. The biggest fireworks show in history lighted the skies of New York City that night, and the Philharmonic played its heart out. The children of New York lay on their backs, body to body, filling every inch of the park as if it had been designed for them and that moment. The fireworks sprinkled down, dissolving in the air just before they reached the ground, and the children were pulled, one inch and one second at a time, into Manhattan and adulthood. By the time the park found its current resting place, every single one of the children had fallen asleep, and the park was a mosaic of their dreams. Some hollered out, some smiled unconsciously, some were perfectly still.

Was there really a Sixth Borough?

There’s no irrefutable evidence. There’s nothing that could convince someone who doesn’t want to be convinced.

Foer does what he does best, grounding the escapist whimsy back into a brilliantly human reality:

[I]t’s hard for anyone, even the most cynical of cynics, to spend more than a few minutes in Central Park without feeling that he or she is experiencing some tense in addition to just the present. Maybe it’s our own nostalgia for what’s past, or our own hopes for what’s to come. Or maybe it’s the residue of the dreams from that night the park was moved, when all of the children of New York City exercised their subconsciouses at once. Maybe we miss what they had lost, and yearn for what they wanted.

Toy yachts in the pond, 1910 (Library of Congress)

In “Fogg in the Park,” Paul Auster juxtaposes the unspoken behavioral governance of the city with the parallel universe of the park:

To walk among the crowd means never going faster than anyone else, never lagging behind your neighbor, never doing anything to disrupt the flow of human traffic. If you play by the rules of this game, people will tend to ignore you. There is a particular glaze that comes over the eyes of New Yorkers when they walk through the streets, a natural and perhaps necessary form of indifference to others. It doesn’t matter how you look, for example. Outrageous costumes, bizarre hairdos, T-shirts with obscene slogans printed across them— no one pays attention to such things. On the other hand, the way you act inside your clothes is of the utmost importance. Odd gestures of any kind are automatically taken as a threat. Talking out loud to yourself, scratching your body, looking someone directly in the eye: these deviations can trigger off hostile and sometimes violent reactions from those around you. You must not stagger or swoon, you must not clutch the walls, you must not sing, for all forms of spontaneous or involuntary behavior are sure to elicit stares, caustic remarks, and even an occasional shove or kick in the shins. I was not so far gone that I received any treatment of that sort, but I saw it happen to others, and I knew that a day might eventually come when I wouldn’t be able to control myself anymore. By contrast, life in Central Park allowed for a much broader range of variables. No one thought twice if you stretched out on the grass and went to sleep in the middle of the day. No one blinked if you sat under a tree and did nothing, if you played your clarinet, if you howled at the top of your lungs. Except for the office workers who lurked around the fringes of the park at lunch hour, the majority of people who came in there acted as if they were on holiday. The same things that would have alarmed them in the streets were dismissed as casual amusements. People smiled at each other and held hands, bent their bodies into unusual shapes, kissed. It was live and let live, and as long as you did not actively interfere with what others were doing, you were free to do what you liked.

What emerges is a meditation on what it means to be oneself:

In the park, I did not have to carry around this burden of self-consciousness. It gave me a threshold, a boundary, a way to distinguish between the inside and the outside. If the streets forced me to see myself as others saw me, the park gave me a chance to return to my inner life, to hold on to myself purely in terms of what was happening inside me. It is possible to survive without a roof over your head, I discovered, but you cannot live without establishing an equilibrium between the inner and outer.

[…]

Perhaps that was all I had set out to prove in the first place: that once you throw your life to the winds, you will discover things you had never known before, things that cannot be learned under any other circumstances.

Auto wreck in Central Park, 1912 (Library of Congress)

Like its subject, Central Park: An Anthology is woven of the kind of magic that summons wildly different multiverses and commands them to fold unto each other with fluidity and grace as a single enchanted world unfolds.

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