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Cecily Cecily

Writing Worth Reading

Does It Help To Know History?

Yes. Not for specific lessons; the same year never comes around twice; but for more philosophical truths. “What history actually shows is that everything has unintentional consequences. History doesn’t show that we should never go to war — sometimes there’s no better alternative. But it does show that the results are entirely uncontrollable, and that we are far more likely to be made by history than to make it” (1,230 words)

The Troll Slayer

Profile of Mary Beard, classics professor at the University of Cambridge, media personality, and “role model for women of all ages who want an intellectually satisfying life”. She has written a dozen books; broadcasts regularly; and “produces scholarly papers and book reviews by the pound”. Her public stance against sexist abuse in mainstream and social media has brought her wider fame as a British “feminist heroine” (6,694 words)

Seeds Of Doubt

The structure of this piece is quite demanding. It begins as an admiring profile of Vandana Shiva, absolutist campaigner against genetically-modified seeds and foods. But it goes on to show that her claims are unfounded, alarmist and potentially ruinous to world food supplies, especially in her native India. Finally, it dismantles Shiva herself, who exits the story looking a good deal less saintly than when she entered it (8,600 words)

Fever Pitch

Demo day at Y Combinator, “an influential firm that invests in startups and helps them to expand”, in the Silicon Valley History Museum. Seventy-five presenters have roughly two minutes each to pitch. “I met the Tinder for networking, the eTrade for bitcoin, the Uber for parking, and the Priceline for products”. The biggest applause goes to Fixed, which will fight your parking tickets for you — “justice as a service” (1,030 words)

Under The Knife

A despairing patient in a Chinese hospital attacks his doctors with a knife, killing one and maiming others, then tries to kill himself. A tragedy, but one of many. “Violence against doctors in China has become a familiar occurrence”. China’s rudimentary post-communist system of medical insurance pits helpless patients against badly-paid doctors in scarcely-regulated hospitals where bribery is almost mandatory (5,420 words)

Covering The Cops

Classic profile of Edna Buchanan, later a celebrated crime novelist, in her days as crime reporter for the Miami Herald. She “dresses every morning to the sound of the police scanner”. When she started in 1973 “a murder was an occasion”. Now Miami has America’s highest murder rate. “A police reporter could drive to work in the morning knowing that there would almost certainly be at least one murder to write about” (7,830 words)

Thinking About Things

James Kelman is a “funny, sour, expansive writer, whose strange, new sentences are brilliant adventures in thought”. As a general rule nothing much happens in his stories; the action is all in the often-brutal language. “Like Knausgaard, he simply proceeds as if the subject matter were interesting”. His latest collection, If It Is Your Life, “continues Kelman’s struggle against official notions of the well-made story” (3,520 words)

Up And Then Down

How elevators work, and how they make buildings work. Wrapped around the tale of a New Yorker for whom elevators, one horrible night in October 1999, did not work. Nicholas White, an editor at Business Week, got into a lift at Rockefeller Centre at 11pm. It jammed at the 13th floor. He emerged 41 hours later with his nerves shattered. He sued the company and lost his job. To this day, he doesn’t know what the problem was (8,000 words)


Sketch of Isadora Duncan at 50, nine months before her death, dancing in Nice with Jean Cocteau accompanying. “She stands almost immobile or in slow splendid steps with slow splendid arms moves to music. Posing through the works of Wagner, through tales of Dante, Isadora is still great. As if the movements of dancing had become too redundant for her spirit, she has saved from dancing only its shape” (1,970 words)

Suicide: A Crime Of Loneliness

Suicide is the tenth most common cause of death in America. Half a million Americans are hospitalised each year after failed suicide attempts. People with depression are especially prone to kill themselves. The rate of suicide is going up. “Suicide is a crime of loneliness, and adulated people can be frighteningly alone. Intelligence does not help in these circumstances; brilliance is almost always profoundly isolating” (1,240 words)

Withdrawing With Style From The Chaos

And, while the archive remains open, another classic from the New Yorker. Kenneth Tynan delivers a sparkling profile of the still-quite-young Tom Stoppard, “one of the two or three most prosperous and ubiquitously adulated playwrights at present bearing a British passport”. With a guest appearance by Harold Pinter. Stoppard scintillates throughout: “What I like to do is take a stereotype and betray it” (26,000 words)

A Brahms Revelation Happened Last Night

Review of orchestral concert which succeeds thrillingly in bringing the music to life: “Vogt slammed the keyboard like a man possessed, capturing the nearly demonic element of Brahms’s inner world — a Lisztian wildness without the cackle. Passages of powerful abandon never lost their rocking rhythmic snap, and lyrical passages maintained a firm intellectual command of Brahms’s compositional filigree” (1,250 words)

A Friend Flees The Horrors Of ISIS

The Islamic State advances through northern Iraq, trapping tens of thousands of Yazidis in the mountains with a choice between starvation and slaughter. The insurgents’ immediate target seems to be the Mosul Dam, which provides electricity to Mosul. “If ISIS takes the dam, which is located on the Tigris River, it would have the means to put Mosul under thirty metres of water, and Baghdad under five” (2,090 words)

The Old House At Home

It’s true that Joseph Mitchell didn’t write often. But when he did, it was enough to make lesser talents weep over their typewriters. This profile of a New York bar and its late departed owner is poetry dressed as prose. “It is a drowsy place; the bartenders never make a needless move, the customers nurse their mugs of ale, and the three clocks on the walls have not been in agreement for many years” (6,530 words)

Gangster’s Guide To Upward Mobility

Discussion of Alice Goffman’s On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City; though the first few paragraphs are about an anthropological study of the American Mafia in the 1960s. The argument here, if I read it correctly, is that careless old-fashioned policing used to give criminal families a chance to go straight; efficient modern policing now traps criminals, and their children, in permanent criminality (5,000 words)

Watching The Eclipse

Virtuoso dissection of Mike McFaul’s doomed ambassadorship to Moscow, showing how he was plunged into a hostile environment without any of the necessary skills or experience and duly imploded. Spliced into the middle is a passage of current reportage from Moscow, interviewing various leading lights of Putinism — Kiselyov, Markov, Dugin, Prokhanov — who sound, without exaggeration, to be insane (11,500 words)

Draft Number Four

Another classic from the New Yorker’s ungated archive, while it lasts. John McPhee on how to beat writer’s block. Always plan on four drafts. The first is the dark night of the soul. “Blurt out, heave out, babble out something — anything — as a first draft. With that, you have achieved a sort of nucleus. Then, as you work it over and alter it, you begin to shape sentences that score higher with the ear and eye” (6,150 words)

Painkiller Deathstreak

Another treasure from the ungated New Yorker archives. A novelist learns to play video games. “My son could have shot me many times, but he didn’t. ‘Go ahead!’ I said. ‘No, Dad,’ he said, ‘I’m not going to shoot you.’ We carried on this peculiar chivalry for fifteen minutes. Finally I wounded him, and he stabbed me, and we relaxed and began shooting and sniping and running and laughing, just as he did with his friends” (7,000 words)

Money Talks: The Language Of Finance

Financial language baffles outsiders with its jargon and density. Such opacity is not necessarily sinister: sometimes words are complicated because reality is complicated. But we should make a special effort to understand. “Incomprehension is a form of consent. If we allow ourselves not to understand this language, we are signing off on the prospect of an ever-widening gap between the rich and everyone else” (3,500 words)

How To Be Good

Another superb profile from the New Yorker’s archive, de-paywalled for the summer. Derek Parfit is perhaps the most original moral philosopher in the English-speaking world. He believes there are true answers to moral questions, as there are to mathematical ones; and that “there is nothing more urgent for him to do in his brief time on earth than discover what these truths are and persuade others of their reality” (10,670 words)

Weird Al Endures

Weird Al Yankovich had his biggest moment in 1984 with a middling success for his Michael Jackson parody, Eat It. But “the world turns over a new batch of dorky teens” every generation, and Al has outlasted the artists he parodies. “We get older but he stays the same age — goofy, juvenile, exuberant, and proudly uncool, a gawky guy with a perm and a nasally, insistent voice, whose tastes run toward geek humor and polka” (1,280 words)

Secrets Of The Magus

I’ll continue to throw in recommendations for classic New Yorker articles as long as the online archive remains open. This profile of magician Ricky Jay, “the most gifted sleight-of-hand artist alive” is a joy throughout — for the glimpses of his performing skills, the portraits of the great magicians who inspired him, and the excursions into magical history and scholarship which are Jay’s ruling passion (14,800 words)

The Uses Of Adversity

All of the New Yorker’s content is temporarily available free on line while the web site is updated; browse and enjoy previously gated favourites. Here is a Malcolm Gladwell piece on a very Gladwellian theme: how an underdog can triumph. The case study is that of Sidney Weinberg, who rose through Goldman Sachs from janitor’s assistant at 16 to senior partner at 40, making his outsider status work in his favour (4,424 words)

Musical Gold

Portrait of three thirty-ish New York siblings, the Carpenters, who deal in rare stringed instruments. They can find you a good Stradivarius “in the low millions”. They seem pretty accomplished at selling themselves, too: “The combined effect of their personalities can feel overwhelming, like an elixir that is more potent than anticipated”. Their aim is to create “the Gagosian gallery of the fine-instrument business” (6,960 words)

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