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- The Best Reviewed Books of the WeekMay 25, 2018
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“Everyone but you has done it!” 
Like many people I know, I reached the final month of last year with a daunting pile of unread New Yorker magazines in my apartment. At first I had kept them rolled up in an old wire milk bottle carrier on the kitchen table, but as the issues continued to arrive each week they quickly overflowed and migrated couchward, eventually forming an onerous and heavy block of thwarted intellectual aspiration; a Ka’aba of failure that I skirted daily, because now it was December, and I had not finished reading even one.
I love The New Yorker. I subscribe, after all. I mean to read it, I want to read it, but you know how it is, and every damn week—bam!—there’s another one. I was contemplating the depressing height of my end-of-year Stack of Shame when I landed on an idea: What if I took all those unread copies on vacation? I would go alone, to somewhere tropical and remote, with spotty Internet and questionable cell reception. It would be a proper reading holiday; a thought retreat; a literary elopement. Because I was committed, goddammit. Surely a week would be enough time to get caught up, no?
I booked a last-minute flight and a six-night stay at a small wind-powered “eco resort” in coastal Tulum, auspiciously located in the Mexican state for which Joan Didion had named her daughter, Quintana Roo. The irony of leaving New York to be able to read The New Yorker had not yet crossed my mind. I tied up my 44 unread issues with twine, threw them into a duffle bag with some bikinis and sunscreen, and headed to the airport.
DAY ONE: “…the one thing you desire most in the world.” 
And just like that we were there, the magazines and me, with low jungle on either side of the road and green everywhere; languid palms interrupted by lipstick-bright splashes of bougainvillea. It was pouring when we landed, but during the three-hour bus ride south from the airport, patches of blue sky began to peek through.
I took a taxi from the bus station, and as if life were a movie and I its not-doomed protagonist, some unfamous cover of a Bonnie Tyler song began to play on the radio just as we turned onto the little coastal access road, and ended exactly as we arrived at a cluster of thatched cabanas nestled between the dense tropical forest and the beach. My cabana was propped up in the coconut palms and wizened sea grape trees, reached by stairs and connected to other cabanas by wooden walkways, like the Swiss Family Robinson treehouse. Watery birdsong rose up from the foliage like a question. It smelled the way a jungle smells, of fecundity and ever so slightly, sweetly, of rot.
“Estás sola?” I’d been asked, at the airport, and on the bus, and when I ordered my dinner later at the open-air restaurant. Are you alone? I liked the way the word sounded when put to me in Spanish, like a woman’s name fashioned from the English word “soul.”
I took out the four copies of The New Yorker that I’d brought along to read for the evening and got down to work. Torches of insect-defying incense made the place smell like a temple. I read: about Syria, and citizenship, and virality; about patterns, and paperbacks, and the Armenian Genocide. The writing was good and the topics were interesting, but nevertheless I was yawning before I’d finished the first issue. How would I be able to get through a whole year’s worth of The New Yorker when I was suddenly unsure of wanting to finish even one?
DAY TWO: “… jolts of vicarious, insatiable ardor…” 
I put on a bikini and went swimming in the ocean. The water was all milky silver, the sun rising in the sky through a pale haze. Exposed to the true light of morning I was sun-starved and wibbly, a grub exhumed from under the rock of wintertime Brooklyn. When I took a hot shower afterwards I could still feel my blood swaying, rising and falling with those waves.
I tried to read on the beach but it was too bright and I sat there blinking in the glare like the Mole Person I am. Eventually, with the aid of a hat and sunglasses, I managed. I read and read, (about Ebola, corruption, Charlie Hebdo, the Kidzania theme parks, the blinking and mystical Wayback Machine), but somehow, by dinnertime, I still hadn’t gotten very far. It was only my first full day, but already I was running into the same problem that had prevented me from finishing any of these New Yorkers in the first place: it’s great to read a long and serious article, but then I want to go read (or do) something else.
DAY THREE: “In the dark, you can dance however you feel in your heart.” 
I got up and went swimming in the ocean again, staying in long enough for my fingers and toes to go wrinkly, thinking, the way one does in the bath. What is the purpose of reading The New Yorker every week, anyway? Taking pleasure in quality writing and insight is one thing, but why feel the obligation? Was it an elitist club? Some perpetual class that we, writers and self-fancied scholars of the modern age, were all taking together, and this its never-ending syllabus? Who did I think I was anyway, making myself feel this particular, rarefied guilt? Did I even deserve to feel this guilty? What life-choices had led me to find myself here, on this paradisiacal beach, with thousands of pages of the best magazine prose in hardcopy format, instead of a sexy human companion, and was it too late to re-think them?
After just a few days of reading only this one publication, I was starting to feel the rhythm of its sentences color my thoughts, the way my body remembered the waves even after I’d left the water. I was also starting to feel as if I were on intimate terms with the magazine’s staff writers, and I adopted nicknames for them in my notes. David Remnick became “D-Rem,” (see also “A-Gop” “E-Kol” and “Nicky P”), while the staff critics became “E-Nuss,” “Tony,” “Schjelly” and so on.
That evening I changed into a dress and ordered a cocktail at the restaurant, my New Yorkers stacked beside me. The cocktail was very strong. Every New Yorker cartoon is laugh-out-loud funny if you drink first! I scrawled.
DAY FOUR: “Become the noodle.” 
Despite my best efforts and the repeated application of not one but two brands of SPF 70 sunblock, a Big Bang of freckles had erupted over me, spreading galaxies across my Irish American limbs.
It was time to get serious. Or, at the very least, serious-er. Surely there was some groove to be slotted into, but so far I wasn’t finding it. I needed to take control, and after some flailing I developed a system.
Here is how to read The New Yorker in bulk and at speed:
1) Grasp the magazine firmly in both hands.
2) Remind yourself that you are in control. The New Yorker is there for you and not the other way around. It is your feelings that matter in this relationship.
3) Have confidence. If you are not enjoying something printed in The New Yorker, it is not necessarily because you are an idiot.
4) “Prime” your New Yorker: Flip through the entire magazine first, reading only the headlines, bylines, captions, poems and cartoons. This way you will minimize distractions upon reading in earnest. (It will also help you know what you are getting yourself into. For example, you may not want to get too wrapped up in another 8,000-word feature about a Republican politician when 3,000 words on Sappho or anything by Kathryn Schulz awaits you at the back.) Which brings me to the next and most important point…
5) Do not read everything in every issue of The New Yorker unless you feel compelled to do so against your will.
DAY FIVE: “…transcend or die” 
I woke before dawn and crept out of my cabana. Geckos fled and slipped into cracks in the wood as I passed, as if they were shadows and I a light source. A sliver of horned moon lay supine on the ocean’s black horizon, a yellow bowl to keep the night in, overflowing with sky.
I decided to refocus my commitment. I would read at least the first three paragraphs of everything, to gauge if I wanted to read more. If, after those three paragraphs I was still aware that I was counting, then I’d skim the rest of the article and move on. If I didn’t notice, I would read the whole thing. I assumed that this would mean I’d end up skipping a large percentage of the content, but you know what they say, pride cometh before a fall.
DAY SIX: “…lost-in-the-veil-of-academe…” 
The New Yorker feast I had planned for myself was quickly devolving into a hotdog eating contest. I’d had enough, but I had to keep going: Karl Ove Knausgaard’s dive into the banally evil mind of a Norwegian terrorist; Patrick Keefe’s exploration of disappearances carried out by the I.R.A.; Rachel Aviv’s disturbing take on Belgium’s right-to-die laws. How many more could I cram in before something ruptured?
Of course it wasn’t all death and darkness. In June, a specially themed “time travel” issue felt as if it had been curated especially for me (Zadie Smith! Karen Russell!! Five, count them, five essays on—did I mention this?—time travel!!!). I took to swearing out loud at the magazine’s embarrassment of riches. I began each new issue hoping against hope that it would be terrible and felt genuinely let down when, unfailingly, it was not. Everything in the March 16th issue was disgustingly, dispiritingly good, which just added insult to injury since there were about nine issues of The New Yorker put out in March.
I was doomed to keep reading, by the brilliance of Amy Davidson, or the elegance of Paige Williams, or the lucidity of Jill Lepore. (Also, did you know that all tweets are archived at the Library of Congress? That the U.S. Constitution never once mentions sex, marriage or reproduction? That a suburb of Seoul is planning to build an invisible skyscraper? That Elizabeth Warren sang “You Are My Sunshine” to her infant daughter? That Nabokov’s wife carried a pistol in her purse? That the Internet weighs 26,000 pounds? That the house band from The Adventures of Pete and Pete got back together?? That creepy Glen on Mad Men was played by Matt Weiner’s son???)
What was worse, the articles only seemed to get better the more I read, and the volume of notes I took surpassed usefulness and entered… something else. Such words as I had seldom heard, but wanted to remember, filled my notebook, like anhedonic, heni, cathexis, Ozymandian, metonym. I copied out and underlined dozens of sentences, like this one from Kathryn Schulz’s “Sight Unseen:”
It is possible, according to many sources, to become invisible, but you must be patient, methodical, and willing to eat almost anything.
I decorated the sentence with hearts. You’ll know you’ve turned invisible when you turn invisible, Schulz writes. In the margin, I scribbled MARRY ME.
There were light articles, obviously, like I said, but actually so much of what I found myself falling into week after week (hour after hour) was about death and horror and war. I sat on the beach in my little red bikini while American soldiers slaughtered children in a village in Vietnam; while Mexican youth were brutalized by smugglers; while Elizabeth Alexander’s beloved husband died in her arms. I had to stop reading when I got to a book feature about the Holocaust that mentioned something about babies and rats that I can’t bring myself to repeat here. I found it so viscerally upsetting that I wanted to throw the issue in the trash, the way I’d once done to a copy of something by the Marquis de Sade I’d picked up from someone’s stoop and taken back to my apartment to flip through. Reading is so intimate, and sometimes you encounter things that can haunt you for years the way an image never could. Then I remembered that the issue with the Holocaust rats also had something on Sarah Manguso in the back, and so I pressed onwards.
DAY SEVEN: “You’re either a nerd or you’re not.” 
I tend to employ magical thinking about certain things. Time. Money. Deadlines. How long it takes to read The New Yorker, or, for that matter, 44 of them. I couldn’t finish in the week I’d allotted myself, because of course I couldn’t. No one could. Not, that is, if I was honest with myself and read every article that I genuinely wanted to read.
It was time to go, but I didn’t want to. I was in love with the chirping of the geckos hidden in the thatch, with the thick starry darkness that fell over the Yucatan each night, with my solitude, and yes, even with my crazy stack of magazines, the pages pliant with humidity, diminished but not conquered. I left the ones I’d already read at reception alongside abandoned dog-eared Swedish novels and travel guides in Italian and Dutch, and packed the others away, defeated.
Overtime: “It’s very important for me to feel this sort of sadness.” 
Except that I refused to be defeated, because there was still time! The year wasn’t over yet, and so I kept reading; on the subway, and at the gym, and in bed, morning and night. I read things that made me shiver, and cry, and get bored, and get angry, and think; I read things that made me scribble furious notes about writing and cruelty and love and feminism, as I sat sandwiched between fellow passengers on a crowded cross-country flight. I read through the holidays, and during the quiet week between Christmas and New Years and finally, late on New Year’s Eve, I was done.
Conclusion: “…the cosmic accident that is Earth” 
The New Yorker is not a relaxing magazine, and why would it be? After all, it isn’t The Northern Californian, nor The Italian. Not La Provençal. Still, due to the sheer number of issues that come out each year and how long it takes to read one, a certain degree of leisure time for the subscriber is assumed. That or a very long commute. And while I started out my intensive reading experiment feeling a little guilty about the bougie lushness of my vacation surroundings, I realized in the end that it could not have been more appropriate. Because The New Yorker is nothing if not a view of the world from a comfortable vantage point. The intensity of the features is balanced by reviews of Manhattan restaurants and jokes about how busy we all are. Print magazines are tribal, and we swear our allegiance by buying them and opening them up. The New Yorker assumes that I am politically liberal and have read Chekhov’s The Seagull, and The New Yorker is right.
A room in which one has been reading for pleasure for many hours has a charge to it. It is, obviously, magic; a portal into other places and other minds. It is the closest thing we have to time travel, allowing us to feel the resonance of days and centuries past and glimpse futures beyond our own personal imagining. But I find that perhaps the greatest gift of reading is how it can transport us not to the future or to the past, but to the present. How it helps us be right here; to return to ourselves. It gives us different lenses to try viewing the world through, to see if any of them can help the universe make more sense. We may write to shout into the abyss of history, but we read to hear the voices of our fellows calling back to us through the dark.
* * * *
A Summary of Summer Brennan’s Favorite New Yorker Pieces from the Time She Took 44 Issues to the Yucatan
Shorter Features, Essays and Reviews
Seven Minutes by Nick Paumgarten · Elementary by Johnathan Blitzer · Northern Lights by Nathan Heller · Couple’s First Dinner Party, Serves 6 by Hallie Cantor · Sight Unseen by Kathryn Schulz · Big Skyline by Patricia Marx · The People You Meet by Charles McGrath · Native Soil by Peter Schjeldahl · Lost Luggage by Daniyal Mueenuddin · Morlocks and Eloi by Rebecca Curtis · Package Tours by Sam Lipsyte · Still Standing by George Packer
Pulp’s Big Moment by Louis Menand · We Know How You Feel by Raffi Khatchadourian · The Pursuit of Beauty by Alec Wilkinson · A Bug In The System by Wil S. Hylton · The Driver’s Seat by Adam Gopnik · Lottery Tickets, by Elizabeth Alexander · Where The Bodies Are Buried by Patrick Keefe · The Scene of the Crime by Seymour M. Hersh · The Nerd Hunter by Stephen Rodrick · The Tallest Trophy by Paige Williams · Where Are The Children by Sarah Stillman · The Little Tramp by Emily Nussbaum · Outside In by Kathryn Schulz · The Inexplicable by Karl Ove Knausgård · Go Ask Alice by Anthony Lane · The Death Treatment by Rachel Aviv · The Really Big One by Kathryn Schulz · The Children of Strangers by Larissa MacFarquhar · Out of Bethlehem by Louis Menand · Omission by John McPhee · Pond Scum by Kathryn Schulz
Reincarnation by Ellen Bass · Solitaire by Deborah Landau · Someday I’ll Love Ocean Vuong by Ocean Vuong · The Lordly Hudson by Adam Fitzgerald · Morning Instructions for the Doctor’s Wife by Cecily Parks · I Have a Time Machine by Brenda Shaughnessy · A Threshold by Don Paterson · Encyclopedia Britannica by Jane Shore · Memento Mori by Chana Bloch · Ash by Tracy K. Smith
 About Face by Patricia Marx, The New Yorker, March 23rd, 2015
 Labyrinth by Amelia Gray, The New Yorker, February 16th, 2015
 Native Soil by Peter Schjeldahl, The New Yorker, May 25th, 2015
 Dance of the Conchord by Tad Friend, The New Yorker, August 24th, 2015
 The Driver’s Seat by Adam Gopnik, The New Yorker, February 2nd, 2015
 The Price of a Life by Ariel Levy, The New Yorker, April 13th, 2015
 The Invisible Library by John Seabrook, The New Yorker, November 16th, 2015
 The Nerd Hunter by Stephen Rodrick, The New Yorker April 6th, 2015
 Karmapa on Campus by Nick Paumgarten, The New Yorker May 11th, 2015
 Project Exodus by Elizabeth Kolbert, The New Yorker June 1st, 2015
Feature image: detail from the April 18th, 2011 cover of The New Yorker, by Jacques de Loustal.