Lots of great stuff in the New Yorker this week, starting with a classic, gorgeous cover by Eric Drooker (and interspersed with a strong selection of cartoons this time around, quite a few of which strike exactly the right clever, citified tone for a New Yorker cartoon) and moving on to a funny "Talk of the Town" piece by Nick Paumgarten on those two Northwest pilots who overshot their runway by a hundred and fifty miles because they were absorbed on their laptops. Of course lots of commentary's been spilled on this, but Paumgarten is worth quoting at length:
Afterward, they explained that they'd logged onto their personal laptop computers and become so engrossed - not in Farm Ville or porn, or even good old off-line activity, such as a fistfight or a nap, but, rather, if you believe them, in the nuances of the airline's new crew flight-scheduling procedure - that they'd essentially forgotten where they were or what they were supposed to be doing. Which was landing a plane. The equivalent for a text-messaging driver might be for him to veer off a turnpike into a cornfield and drive twenty miles through the corn rows - stalks thumping the hood, G.P.S. lady losing her mind - without once looking up from the task of typing a heartfelt response to a wireless provider's auto-generated telemarketing text. That is, it's almost unimaginable.
Not sure what it'll take for states to enact the very, very obvious legislation needed to ban using cellphones and especially visual media like texting or laptops while operating heavy machinery at high speeds - it can't be deaths, since lots of people have already been killed through just such negligence - maybe notoriety? Maybe somebody texting-while-driving plows straight into the White House street barrier and dies in a hail of automatic weapons fire? Maybe an elementary school bus driver takes himself and his forty little charges off an overpass while texting? It's the dumbest thing in the world that the legislation hasn't happened yet, so I'm increasingly curious to know what the triggering event will eventually be.
But the main attractions of this issue, for me, were two pieces on authors with whom I have, shall we say, problematic reader relationships. Thomas Mallon turns in a long and wonderful synopsis of the literary and sociological phenomenon that is Ayn Rand. At first, I was worried that Mallon himself is one of her legion of mindless worshipers, but I was quickly reassured by some of his great quips about her unendurable books, like these two gems about The Fountainhead: "It is, in fact, badly executed on every level of language, plot, and characterization," and "The novel's dialogue is never even accidentally plausible." Hee.
The other author is Jonathan Safran Foer, whose latest book Eating Animals is reviewed at length in a smart, argumentative piece by Elizabeth Kolbert. Foer's book is also damn near unbearable, but not, as in Rand's case, because it's poorly written - in fact, it - and Foer in general - would be far less irritating if it were possible to simply dismiss it as bad writing. No, Foer can definitely craft sound prose - but what he's done with that ability since he first easily, effortlessly gimmicked his way into public view with Everything Is Illuminated has been nothing but frustrating, and this book is no exception. In it, he hyperventilates about how the prospect of fatherhood forced him to re-evaluate his eating habits ... for every page of the book, he bounces between sounding like he's the first person ever to learn that meat consumption is wasteful and cruel and the first person ever to become a father. The end result is wearyingly narcissistic, despite the large amount of gruesomely fascinating data lucidly presented.
Kolbert soft-pedals a lot more than Mallon ("Some may object" and "others will argue" ... but not much more than a peep or two what she may object or will argue), which may arise from greater politeness or a sense of fellow-feeling (she is, it turns out, a bit insufferable herself, being one of those hobbyist chicken-raisers the entire rest of the country - for various and equally valid reasons - so rightly detests). But you have to give her credit for her well-written not-entirely-hypothetical defense of eating animals, on two grounds: people are, after all, still animals - geared by millions of years of evolution to eat meat, and animals are, in fact, not people - so they don't deserve the full panoply of rights and protections people extend to themselves. She acknowledges that Foer disagrees with both these points, and she goes on from them to make some serious body-blows against some of his book's points (like his wishy-washiness on calling factory farmers evil, or his apparent willingness to continue drinking milk and eating eggs). It ends up being every bit as satisfying as Mallon's piece.
There's other good stuff too in this issue - Jill Lepore writes about the staggering amounts of violence in American society, and Anthony Lane is his usual peppy, quotable self reviewing two movies nobody will remember next week. But for my money (which reminds me: really need to start subscribing to the New Yorker), it's the two literary pieces that sell the issue - just wish they were about less (insert adjective) writers ...