What I’ve Been Reading
1. Last week’s New York Magazine cover story, by Adam Sternbergh, about the Brooklyn real estate blog Brownstoner and the commenting imp who goes by the Seussian name (as the piece’s illustrations brilliantly convey) “The What.” The piece, linked here, is a perfect example of excellent magazine writing: Ostensibly it’s about the tiniest of subjects—the comments section of a niche blog—but really it’s about so much more: class anxiety and hatred, fear, racism, gentrification, money, renters vs. owners, and more. The excellent soft lede—and this is a great idea, really—is nothing more than an aggregate of comments from the site, all mashed together.
Note: The What’s blog-commenting “signature” is Robert Duvall’s famous line from Apocalypse Now: “Someday this war’s gonna end.” It’s unfortunate that Sternbergh doesn’t point out the way that Duvall says this line in the movie, which is in a wistful fashion that betrays his fondness for the war, from which he draws so much of his self-image and meaning. Would have added another good wrinkle to the article—The What loves the war, and maybe many involved on the Brownstoner blog do, too.
2. Emily Gould’s New York Times Magazine cover story from two Sundays ago, “Post-Blog Confidential.” In it, Emily, a former Gawker blogger, writes about starting a personal blog of her own, and then the ecstatic highs and disillusioning lows of her time as a snark blogger for hire with Nick Denton’s evil empire. It’s a bit self-involved (as I suppose any 10-page article about blogging must be), but it’s well-written and provides some insight into the acrimonious world of blogging. Emily writes this about her former employer:
Sometimes Gawker felt like a source of essential, exclusive information, tailored to the needs of people just like me. Other times, reading Gawker left me feeling hollow and moody, as if I’d just absentmindedly polished off an entire bag of sickly sweet candy.
In the parlance, I feel her. That’s the precise reason why I cold-turkey quit reading Gawker a few years ago, save for the occasional post forwarded to me by a co-worker or a friend. I switched to Gothamist, a much more optimistic and (I feel) healthy diversion, about all aspects of New York City. I highly recommend it.
3. The Ends of the Earth: The Finest Writing on the Arctic and the Antarctic, edited by Elizabeth Kolbert and Francis Spufford. Lately I’ve been easing back into what I’ll call Ice-lit, and I’ve been remembering what I like so much about it. It’s not the subject matter per se, it’s more the way in which the poles are like those weirdly magnetized places on the planet where cylinders roll uphill and compasses go crazy: They are places where the normal laws of the planet break down, and therefore I believe they are great “becoming” places. See this passage from Robert Peary, for example, from his (disupted) account of being the first to reach the North Pole:
It was hard to realize that, in the first miles of this brief march, we had been traveling due north, while, on the last few miles of the same march, we had been traveling south, although we had all the time been traveling precisely in the same direction. It would be difficult to imagine a better illustration of the fact that most things are relative.
… at some moment during these marches and countermarches, I had passed over or very near the point where north and south and east and west blend into one.
Brilliant. I felt the same way when I was on Antarctica, even though I did not reach that continent’s equivalent point. But I remember sitting on top of Observation Hill once, with someone, crouched in the lee of a rock and quietly looking out onto the frozen Ross Sea, which stretched in a solid white sheet to the horizon. All was still and silent and white, and a growing sense of unmooredness—from life, from the flow of time, from place, from purpose—spread throughout my body. It was like a hole opened up in the fabric of reality, and for a moment I could see through and beyond this hole into the heart of the universe’s monolithic silence.