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An Essay Triptych

February 13, 2009 Leave a comment Go to comments
Annunciation Triptych

Annunciation Triptych

Wednesday afternoon, during one of my periodic breaks from work to check the latest on the blogs, I learned from the New Yorker’s Rick Hertzberg of a fantastic essay by Zadie Smith in the latest issue of the competition, The New York Review of Books. He didn’t pull his punches, leading with “Please, I beg you: drop whatever you’re doing and read “Speaking In Tongues,” Zadie Smith’s brilliant meditation on Barack Obama.” Well, I sure was tempted, but you know, as many articles as I read now on my computer screen, it’s not the place where I want to read great writing. I decided to wait until the print issue arrived at home. And to my delight, it had already arrived. I just had to go home to find it.

Once I got home, I had to decide about the relative urgency of getting dinner organized, doing more blog catch-up, making more progress on grading the week’s course assignment, and dropping it all to read Zadie. Since Zadie’s piece comes in three convenient sections, I made the inane decision to read a section at a time, squeezing the rest of my life in between. I wouldn’t take this as evidence that I can no longer read more than a page or two at a sitting. I still can. Really. But not at the moment that I get home from school. There are too many other things to catch up on.

How great was Zadie Smith’s essay? You know how it is when someone tells you something is great. I knew she hadn’t just come down from Mt. Sinai with a third tablet, but I was ready for it. Instead, what I got was absolutely first rate. I’ll join Hertzberg in saying you should read her piece. Read his blog commentary on it too. Here’s a sample from the essay:

To occupy a dream, to exist in a dreamed space (conjured by both father and mother), is surely a quite different thing from simply inheriting a dream. It’s more interesting. What did Pauline Kael call Cary Grant? ” The Man from Dream City.” When Bristolian Archibald Leach became suave Cary Grant, the transformation happened in his voice, which he subjected to a strange, indefinable manipulation, resulting in that heavenly sui generis accent, neither west country nor posh, American nor English. It came from nowhere, he came from nowhere. Grant seemed the product of a collective dream, dreamed up by moviegoers in hard times, as it sometimes feels voters have dreamed up Obama in hard times. Both men have a strange reflective quality, typical of the self-created man—we see in them whatever we want to see.” Everyone wants to be Cary Grant,” said Cary Grant.” Even I want to be Cary Grant.” It’s not hard to imagine Obama having that same thought, backstage at Grant Park, hearing his own name chanted by the hopeful multitude. Everyone wants to be Barack Obama. Even I want to be Barack Obama.

Later that night, I came upon another superb essay in the current New York Review of Books, Emma Rothschild’s “Can We Transform the Auto-Industrial Society?“. It may lack the beauty of Zadie Smith’s writing, but it is thought provoking in its own right. Again, I’ll offer a sample:

In a stocktaking of recent economic history, and of the thirty-year experiment in market ideology that began with the Thatcher and Reagan revolutions of the 1970s, the evolution of the automobile industry, of energy use in transportation, and of American land use has led to a peculiarly bitter destiny.

The US has become more unequal since 1979, in income and amenities. It is less industrial, with only 9.6 percent of people employed in manufacturing in 2007, compared to 20.4 percent in 1979; more open to imports of goods and services, with imports accounting for 17.2 percent of GDP in 2007, compared to 9.9 percent in 1979; and more capitalist, with 7.5 percent of people employed in the private sector members of unions, compared to 21.2 percent in 1979. It is more feckless, with savings accounting for 0.6 percent of personal income in 2007, compared to 8.9 percent in 1979 In what Lawrence H. Summers has called the “new age of markets,” it is also a richer country, of “market-led growth” in information and (until 2007) in financial services.

The automobile industry has been one of the losers in the new American economy. US consumers spent less on new automobiles in 2007 than they spent on “brokerage charges and investment counselling”; in 1979, they had spent ten times as much. In 1979, the share of the auto industry in US GDP was more than twice that of the securities and information services industries together; in 2007, it had been reduced to less than a quarter of their share.

Lastly, I’ve become a sucker for Sandra Tsing Loh’s pieces in The Atlantic, and a new one arrived yesterday. Let me draw your attention to her book review “Class Dismissed.”
I won’t say you should drop whatever you’re doing and read it. Nor will I try to summarize what it’s about. I’ll simply provide the following excerpt without context.

At network-TV meetings, millionaire 20-something comedy writers see how low they can go with torn jeans, T-shirts, and grimy Red Sox caps, while the only guys in coat and tie on the lot are the Honduran valet parkers. That grimy baseball cap signifies Harvard Lampoon alum, which opens the door to Hollywood comedy riches, in a process that can seem, to the uninitiated, truly bewildering and mysterious. X people offer jobs to those they recognize, by certain nuanced clues, as members of their creative tribe, which makes people fear that they might mistransmit a code—bringing us back to Fussell’s rubric of class being announced in clothing, lifestyle, and speech. What will best fire the small talk, and the resulting intimate connection, that invigorates the start of a pitch meeting? Mets cap? Cubs cap? Yankees cap? What if you went to UC Davis instead of Harvard—are you not as funny? What is the right note of irony to apply to your hip-hop speech, given that you are, in actuality, suburban, 33, and white?

Loh is wicked witty and clever. Maybe she overdoes it at times, but I’m not tired of it yet.

These three articles form an unexpected triptych, giving different insights into the world we occupy at the start of the Obama presidency. When you’re done with whatever you’re doing, have a look.

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Categories: Culture, Geography, Politics
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