Book Review

Cleaning House, or: The New Yorker Ate My Study

Stuart Mitchner

I wish New Yorker cartoonist Charles Addams were alive to draw the nightmare I had before I finally rounded up numerous errant back issues of the magazine he worked for and dragged them out for recycling. If you're old enough to be a radio person, you remember Fibber McGee's closet. Every time he opened the door, a sound-effects-man's dream of junk would fall on his head. Or maybe you remember the scene in the Marx Brothers' A Night at the Opera where the human multitude packed into a tiny stateroom comes spilling out when someone opens the door. And if you live in Princeton, you may have had uneasy images of water rising up through the floorboards and engulfing your cozy home. Now imagine back issues of the New Yorker pushing up through the floor, pouring out of the bathroom, or tumbling down on your head when you open the closet door. In my dream, I actually found heaps of the things rustling and thrusting suggestively about, caught in the act, cohabitating, mating under cover of darkness to produce yet more little New Yorkers.

You'd think the housekeeping benefits alone would be reason enough to invest in The Complete New Yorker, which sells online for a price ranging from $48 to $70. Last time I checked, the best deal was at thenewyorkerstore.com.

As tempted as I was by the possibility of having access to the covers, cartoons, features, poetry, fiction, and reviews, not to mention the order-enhancing prospect of having it all neatly contained on eight compact DVD-ROMS, that wasn't what actually inspired me to purchase The Complete New Yorker; it was the idea of being able to browse through the magazine's documentation of almost nine decades of Manhattan night life, all the plays, movies, jazz, all the theatres, moviehouses, and night clubs. My fascination with this aspect of the city is easily explained. Imagine being raised in Indiana and then spending the ninth grade going to the same school off Central Park West that the author of The Catcher in the Rye spent the ninth grade in 20 years before me. I had to take the subway to McBurney every morning but after school I walked home through Times Square in the days when first-run moviehouses like the Astor and the Victoria featured immense billboards, and the RKO Palace still had daytime vaudeville between movies, and you could go to a matinee at the Music Hall with a stage show for 75 cents. Those were also the days when they let underage kids in to hear Count Basie and Dizzy Gillespie at Birdland as long as they stuck to Cokes and Ginger Ale.

It makes sense, then, that the offices of The New Yorker have always been within shouting distance of the Great White Way. And today they're right in the heart of it at 4 Times Square.

Reading in the Original

One of the advantages of having every issue of the magazine at hand is the opportunity to see special pieces in their original surroundings. While Joseph Mitchell's slices of New York life may be no less evocative in book form, they are literally in their element in the magazine, and if you can believe the The New Yorker is New York, you're closer to the source as you peruse "McSorley's Wonderful Saloon" amid the ads, cartoons, poetry, and "Goings On About Town" reflecting the time and the place. The same is true of landmark features such as Lillian Ross's profile of Ernest Hemingway, or John Hersey's Hiroshima, or Truman Capote's In Cold Blood (with the Richard Avedon photos).

J.D. Salinger, my old schoolmate 20 years removed, has probably consumed more space in more single New Yorkers than anyone else, and the only back issues of the magazine I've collected have been the ones with his work in them. Whenever an installment from his Glass family saga was looming, the editors reportedly had to pressure him to give them a firm date so that they could set aside virtually an entire issue for "Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters" which ran from p. 51 to p. 116; "Seymour: An Introduction" (42 to 111); "Zooey," (32 to 139); and "Hapworth 16, 1924," the last work he allowed into print back on June 19, 1965, which ran from p. 32 to p. 113. Maybe because I sensed it might be the last sighting of the misanthropic author in his native New Yorker habitat, I made sure to hang on to that issue. I'm glad I did because it's the only place 7-year-old Seymour's magnificently verbose, "touching," "heartrending" (his two favorite words) letter from summer camp can be found unless you're willing to shell out anywhere from $200 to $2000 for one of the 20-odd copies available online of the pirated editon of Salinger's "complete uncollected short stories." This nutty letter has a spirit and style as unique as Holden Caulfield's and it makes fans like myself want to read more about Buddy, Zooey, Franny, and all the other Glasses. For 40-plus years readers have been waiting for the other hand to clap, and now, sad as it seems, they're waiting for the author to die, assuming that not until then will the world see the book or books he's been working on all this time.

Getting Around In It

Needless to say, reading in, or even flipping through, The Complete New Yorker isn't as comfortable as reading a book, though I suppose if you have a laptop you can stretch out in a hammock or on a couch and enjoy yourself. Even so, you need to be patient and persistent. For one thing, the package is necessarily unwieldy, and the book inside the covers is attached in a way that makes it difficult to read without forcibly detaching it, which seems like a violation of the packaging. Unless you download the whole set, which requires either Windows 2000 and XP or Mac OS X 10.3, not to mention 750 MB hard drive space and 1024 x 768 minimum screen resolution, you need to change disks whenever you want to surf between decades. So far I prefer to browse by cover; you click on the one for the date you want from a page displaying the front covers for a particular year and it shows you the contents along with an abstract of key words; there are varying levels of magnification you can use for reading; you can see either two pages in one go (via the flip mode), the way you would if you were holding the issue in your hands, or you can browse page by page, backwards or forwards, with a click of the up or down keys on your keyboard. The few times I've tried to search using the index have been somewhat frustrating since the documentation seems less thorough than you would expect for so famously detail-oriented a publication, although this may well be simply a matter of getting used to the system. The New Yorker website offers detailed help.

Then and Now

If you start your tour from the beginning, in February 1925, you'll notice by the spring of that year a drastic falling off in the number of ads, and a corresponding dip in the page count to a mere 24. According to Genius in Disguise, Thomas Kunkel's biography of New Yorker editor Harold Ross, the situation was so bleak that Ross and his partners decided to "kill the magazine" at a meeting at the Princeton Club, of all places. Fortunately, they changed their minds a day later, planning to limp through the summer and hold their best material in reserve for a big push in the fall. By July finances were so stretched that the cover of one issue had to be printed in black and white. A few months later things picked up in a big way, thanks to popular features such as "Why We Go to Cabarets: A Post-Deubtante Explains" and new columns like "On and Off the Avenue," which appealed to shoppers and attracted ads from Saks and B. Altman's. By December the page count was up to 56 and French perfumes and luxury automobiles were among the products being advertised.

Now behold the latest incarnation, which just landed on our doorstep. While the baseball-diamond front cover of April 3, 2006, looks at first glance as if it could have served in April 3, 1926, you'll notice that all the players on the field are on the same scale except the left fielder, a steroid-swollen monster meant, of course, to represent Barry Bonds. The cover's title is "Bigger Than the Game." And inside the new issue you have The Talk of the Town talking about the "construct of delusion" otherwise known as the invasion of Iraq. You also have pieces on poverty, radical Muslims, and you have Princeton poet C.K. Williams's searing "Cassandra, Iraq," a topical poem that, like the best poetry, transcends its topic. It's safe to say that the original editors, who pledged in the first issue "to be gay, humorous, satirical, but to be more than a jester," would find recent cover art well on the wild side of mere satire. The February 27 cover, for instance, shows the President and Vice President in Brokeback Mountain attire, clearly up to no good as Vice holds his smoking gun. Not a bad day's work for one cover: to suggest in a single amusing yet sinister image the recklessness of the current administration; a popular movie with a theme sure to offend the anti-same-sex-marriage lobby; and the cowboy role-playing of the president who promised to bring in Osama bin Laden "Dead or Alive."

Two Days, Two Covers,

The only two New Yorker covers I ever saved were atypical, I suppose. They weren't witty or playful or even particularly colorful. They just happened to coincide with my mood on two significant occasions. My parents had both been aspiring writers who dreamed of one day placing a story in The New Yorker. For as far back as I can remember we had a folding screen decorated with covers of the magazine that reflected the dream (unrealized) of one day seeing something they'd written in its pages. The first cover I saved, from the issue of December 18, 1978, the day my mother died, shows light flooding through the great windows of Grand Central Station; the second one, for April 14, 1986, the day my father died, shows an empty chair, conveying a mood not unlike the other, except instead of the image of rays of light pouring down on the business of daily life, the suggestion is simply that someone who had been sitting in the chair was no longer there.

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