Tuesday, September 17, 2019

The New Yorker

Have you ever noticed that if you open a copy of The New Yorker to pretty much anywhere, allow your eye to land at random on the page, and start reading... it's OK?

You might wonder who is this Samuelson person? You might care enough to scan backwards and find out where Samuelson appears, and learn that he's a grad student in the lab researching the link between whatever and the other thing.

But mostly, you can just start reading anywhere. The content of The New Yorker is a sort of woozy flow of words, little stitched together anecdotes and dropped quotations that speak mainly to the writer's erudition and command of the language. There is no slowly built up argument, there is no narrative, there is no forward thrust. It's just a kind of quilt that, ideally I guess, builds up into a sort of composite picture of whatever the piece is about.

I find this to be the second most most irritating thing about The New Yorker. The most irritating thing is that every article has am unwritten subtitle which is "I am very smart and read a lot." See also that monument to stupidity masquerading as erudition, Brain Pickings.

Anyways, the thing which occurred to me in a moment of wakefulness in the night is that a photo book often has this same property.

Because we have no special training to start at the beginning, and indeed a 100 years of coffee table books have taught us the opposite, we open visual books at random and flip pages.

If it's not hook-y, we put the book down and walk away.

Actually, let us back up. Milnor points out that the cover is the first do-or-die moment. The cover has to grab the attention. Next, the randomly opened page has to keep that attention enough to induce a page-flip, and then maybe another. The grip on the viewer is extremely tenuous here, and you've got to have enough interest at any point to hold them.

This argues for a fairly high density of punchy, interesting pictures. A typical MFA-driven product of MACK books or any of their compatriots fails this completely. Nobody is ever, ever, going to pick up i walk toward the sun which is always going down, flip a few pages, and be drawn in. The cover has the "curb appeal" of a turd, and the contents are, as far as the MACK web site reveals, no better.

The only way you read this book is if a friend urges you to, probably repeatedly. This doesn't mean it's terrible, at all. It might be excellent. But it is not accessible. It requires commitment to even get started. It might even require a certain suspension of disbelief, as it were.

The attentive reader will have noticed that I dislike The New Yorker's "start anywhere" feature, and yet appear to be advocating for it, for visual books. You are correct, attentive reader. This is, I think, a feature that the visual book kind of needs, but it is also one that makes me unhappy.

A really really good visual book operates like this, I think:

The cover grabs your attention, you pick it up. You open at random and flip a few pages, and your interest spikes upward. The pictures are arresting, the words seem to be both accessible and interesting. Something compels you to flip to the beginning, and you start reading from there.

The last bit is where the book stops being The New Yorker, which generally evokes no such compulsion.

Now, this is not to say that the randomly accessible pastiche is not OK, it is. I don't like it in The New Yorker in part because words are not supposed to work this way, in my mind. If you're going to give me 5000 words on something, I'd like to see some structure, not just a random selection of stuff. Pictures, on the other hand, I am socialized to accept in a more random scattershot fashion.

At the end it is the composite picture, the totality of the gestalt, that matters anyways.


  1. I have this photo book, "Atget Paris" that's a beast. Not coffee table big, but fat, and really, really heavy. So heavy that when I look at it at night, it literally hurts to perch it on my chest, like it will crush me.

    It's unpleasant to browse. Even though the paper is thin, it must be coated with something really dense because it's printed on both sides, and there's no show-through. I guess that's what makes it so heavy.

    It's like got all, and I mean all of his Paris photos, arranged by numbered Arrondissements, and neighborhoods (e.g Versailles). All the photos are interesting, and some few are very good as photographs. The arrangement or sequence (if you will) is not interesting (to me), or conducive to viewing in any particular order, even though as described, it's logical.

    I should hate this book, but it's weirdly fascinating, and I pick it up quite often. I don't know that I've seen all the pictures in it, or that I ever will.

    1. Corrections:

      1. ~800 pages is why it's so heavy (the no-see-through coating probably helps)

      2. Not all his Paris photos, just more than in any other book -- publisher's claim.

      3. Not neighborhoods, Quartiers.

  2. Thanks for the link to Mack books. I spent an hour or so looking at the books on their website this afternoon.

    Somehow I had never noticed that photobooks are just zines with the usual proportion of text to pictures reversed.

    Now I want to make one of my own. I blame you for this :-)

    1. Heh. I have started referring to my photo books (at least in my inner monologue) as "zines" because they're small and have some inextricable mixture of pictures and text, in varying proportions.

    2. Cphmag.com is pimping the zinelette you cited (by his ex-student, as it happens) as "Images and Text, Text and Images."

    3. Yes, that's how I came across it.

      It looks like some young dumbshit's idea of "literary" paired with a pile of godawful "flyover country sucks" photographs, but MACK doesn't actually give us much of the content.

    4. Dude, WTF, you're a hamster? Get outta here.

      I kinda like your crow pictures.

    5. Yeah, funny coincidence right? I had the same reaction the first time you mentioned Bellingham in one of your posts.

      :-) Those crows all live in my neighborhood. It's been really cool to watch them raise their kids and go about their crow lives for the last few years. I try to show the different birds personalities as much as I can.

  3. "See also that monument to stupidity masquerading as erudition, Brain Pickings."

    Finally someone speaks the truth! Also, I will feel much better the next time I try to read a New Yorker article and stop after a while, partly bored and partly ashamed for my ignorance.