“To See and Not See”

February 6, 2006

May 10, 1993 Recently the media has given us two wonderful human-interest stories about people regaining the power of sight or hearing. In Coventry, England, a 74-year-old grandmother of twelve named Joyce Urch of Coventry, England, regained her eyesight after being blind for 26 years. A few days later we learned of 72-year-old Derek Glover of Lincolnshire, England, who regained his hearing on a ski lift after at least 15 years of severe hearing loss.

As is so often the case, lurking in the CNY is an illuminating article about an even more interesting case — a man who regained his eyesight after being blind since infancy. In 1993 the New Yorker ran an article by Oliver Sacks about a man pseudonymously identified as “Virgil,” a 50-year-old Oklahoman who opted to undergo an operation to restore his eyesight. As you can imagine, it’s quite a different thing to restore the eyesight of someone who never learnt how to see — at least Mrs. Urch could draw on vivid memories of sighted life. The difficulties Virgil underwent are truly fascinating and surprising — and of course Sacks is a master at spinning out the implications of such situations.


“Jim Peck’s Cabaret”

February 6, 2006

February 4, 1980 I’ve always felt that Michael J. Arlen was one of the New Yorker‘s most underrated writers; he’s always been a favorite of mine. He was the New Yorker‘s first real television critic, and in my opinion he remains one of the best TV critics who ever wrote. He released three books of his New Yorker criticism: Living Room War, The View from Highway 1, and The Camera Age. He started reviewing TV in the 1960s, and many of the first reviews are really about the presentation of the Vietnam War on the news. In my opinion his best work came in the 1970s, when he covered more mundane fare — crime series like “Baretta,” miniseries like “Shogun,” stuff like that.

In 1980 he reviewed a game show called “3’s a Crowd” hosted by someone called Jim Peck. The show was a clear copy of “The Newlywed Game” — only with that extra tacit acceptance of extramarital affairs that makes you wonder how this show ever got put on the air. Arlen’s is an indelible piece that describes a truly ridiculous artifact of TV history. If you needed any confirmation that the battle of the sexes has changed, read this. I find myself wondering whether Arlen was making the show up, but he wrote plenty of satirical pieces, and he wasn’t generally shy about showing his hand in such cases.

“An Agent in Place”

February 6, 2006

March 26, 1966 Recently I was traveling in Poland, Hungary, and Berlin. During my train rides I was reading a lot of John Le Carré and Len Deighton novels, and as much as I enjoyed them I became more curious about how accurate they were. So I turned to my trusty CNY set to see if there was any good reporting on espionage — and boy, did it come through.

In 1966 the New Yorker ran a three-part article by Thomas Whiteside about a Swedish spy who had recently been captured. His name was Stig Wennerström. The article is called “An Agent in Place,” and it’s one of the best things on espionage I’ve ever read — it was also released as a book. Wennerström had been a spy for the Soviet Union in America and later in Sweden. The first two parts of the article are both a little dry and quite different from the third part, and it’s necessary to read all three parts to get a full picture of the case and derive the lessons that Whiteside wanted to impart. The article supplied me with just the kind of model I was looking for, a glimpse of the true nature of running a covert agent that I could use to “test” the credibility of the books by Le Carré and Deighton.

In 1993 the Center for the Study of Intelligence, which I think is run by the CIA, declassified an internal report on the Wennerström case. In passing the author of the report, Alexander Mull, called “An Agent in Place” “the best single unclassified history of the case from the intelligence point of view.” You can download that CSI report here in HTML or PDF format.

“My God, it’s full of words….”

February 6, 2006

I think we can safely say that it was a good day when I heard that the New Yorker was going to release all of its issues in DVD format. In the autumn of 2005, I bought the Complete New Yorker (CNY) set, and I’ve been enjoying it with gusto ever since.

Most of the reviewers who praised the CNY made reference to the futility of actually trying to read all of it. The number of issues (4,109) was often mentioned. It is certainly a daunting number. If you spend every single evening reading one issue, you will be nearing the end in the year 2016. (Once you finished that, you’d still have to continue the exercise for another year and a half to catch up with the issues released since autumn 2005.)

As I eagerly consumed my fill of the excellent articles, I often wished for some sort of online directory, blog, wiki, or catalog containing the favorite finds of some industrious person. Of course, this worked in two directions: after reading a particularly satisfying article in the CNY, I also wished that there were an obvious place where I could post the find.

Strangely enough, I never found any such directory, and Amazon’s comments page for the product wasn’t exactly doing it for me. So I’m starting my own.

This blog is herewith dedicated to the collection of discerning recommendations of treasures to be found in the CNY. Articles, Talk of the Town pieces, Cartoons, Advertisements, Squibs, you name it. If you stumbled on it in the CNY, and you think people should know about it, drop me a line. I promise to do my share of the recommending.

This will also be a place where people can discuss and debate the DVD collection itself. I am aware that there has already been considerable annoyance expressed in some quarters about various technical quirks and legal ambiguities concerning the collection, and — provided that the tone remains civil — I would like consumers of the DVD to consider this blog a potential resource for such topics. Having said that, I should state that I am relatively not very bothered by such matters, and I will not allow this blog to become a place for wholesale trashing of the project.

Eventually I would like to see this blog (should it find palpable response) turn into a collective enterprise, but for the time being I will be in charge of it.

So onward! I have plenty of articles I want to pass on, and I sincerely hope you do as well. This blog will never work if it remains a one-way street. Welcome!