The illustration is called “Liberty’s Flameout,” and it’s by John W. Tomac. “It was the symbol of American values,” Tomac says. “Now it seems that we are turning off the light.”
Above is the cover of next week’s New Yorker, by Eric Drooker. In an interview about the work, Drooker says: “The police shooting of Michael Brown resonates on a personal level with me. An artist friend of mine was killed by a cop in lower Manhattan, back in 1991. He happened to be black, and the police officer was never indicted.”
Fuck, fucker, fuckest; fuckest, fucker, fuck. In all my days, I had found that four-letter word—with its silent “c” and its quartzite “k”—more shocking than a thunderclap. My parents thought it was a rhetorical crime. Mr. Shawn actually seemed philosophical about its presence in the language, but not in his periodical. My young daughters, evidently, were in no sense as burdened as he was. Or as I was. Or as their grandparents were. In the car in their middle-school years, they batted that word between the back and front seats as if they were playing Ping-Pong. Driving, and hearing those words reach a critical mass, I once spontaneously bellowed (in an even-tempered, paternal way), “Fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck—I can say it, too!”
Well, maybe in a car, but not in The New Yorker, not in 1975, and I didn’t need to be told. I had been writing for the magazine for a dozen years. There were no alternatives like “f—” or “f**k” or “[expletive deleted],” which sounds like so much gravel going down a chute. If the magazine had employed such devices, which it didn’t, I would have shunned them. “F-word” was not an expression in use then and the country would be better off if it had not become one.
-John McPhee, in The New Yorker (now free for everyone), on the history of certain words in the magazine.
Photo: Princeton University
An interview with Robin Nagle, the New York City Department of Sanitation’s Anthropologist in Residence who has spent most of her life studying trash:
“In its early days, the department didn’t really function at all. There are some photographs taken for Harper’s Weekly, before and after photos of street corners in New York in 1893 and then in 1895. And the before pictures are pretty astonishing, people were literally shin-high or knee-high in this muck that was a combination of street gunk, horse urine and manure, dead animals, food waste, and furniture crap.
“Put yourself back in the late 19th century and think about the material world that would have surrounded you in your home. When you threw something out, it wouldn’t go anywhere. It would be thrown in the street.”
One of my two favorite short stories published in 2012 is “Member/Guest” by David Gilbert, which appeared in The New Yorker the week of November 12, but since that story is not available online without a subscription, I present five other amazing stories published by The New Yorker this year. I’ve been a subscriber to the magazine for as long as I can remember, but I’m glad to see more of the fiction available online for free. Some of those free stories are by masters of the form—including George Saunders, Antonya Nelson, and Alice Munro*, who wrote my other favorite story of the year, “Amundsen.” When I open The New Yorker to find a new Munro story, my heart skips a beat. It’s like having an old friend show up for an unexpected visit.
*no one who knows me should be surprised to see an Alice Munro story among my picks
Photo credit: Rebecca Zeller
I am never sure how to choose the “best” story as there are too many. But here’s a list of some of the most notable and memorable stories I read in 2012. Pamela Colloff’s two-part series, “The Innocent Man,” which appeared in Texas Monthly, was one of the best crime stories—and, indeed, best pieces of journalism in any category—that I read. Many of my favorite longreads are works of history, and, in that category, I would include two notable pieces published in the magazine that I work for, The New Yorker: they are Robert A. Caro’s “The Transition,” a book excerpt that details, through the eyes of Lyndon Johnson, the terrifying day of the assassination of John F. Kennedy; and Jill Lepore’s “The Lie Factory,” which chronicles the first political consulting firm in the United States, and helps explain everything that is rotten about our politics today.
Finally, I would include a category for the best longreads from the vault—those long ago published pieces that you suddenly discover or rediscover. This year, I read two remarkable pieces in this category. One was James Baldwin’s “Notes of a Native Son,” which originally appeared in Harper’s, in 1955; it’s the kind of essay that is almost no longer done, and that uses autobiography to tell the story of a nation. The other old piece was David Foster Wallace’s “How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart,” published in 1994, which begins as a predictable takedown review of Austin’s memoir and then becomes a totally unexpected meditation on the nature of athletic greatness and storytelling.