Tag Archives: The New Yorker

#Vanlife: Selling Their Staged World, One Social Media Post at A Time

How did a movement toward simple, nomadic life in Volkswagen vans become commercialized sponsor-fodder, in which “vanlifers” trade social media currency for subsidized van repairs and discounts? Is #vanlife really freedom, or just another way to sell your soul, one social media post at a time? Read Rachel Monroe’s story at The New Yorker.

Scroll through the images tagged #vanlife on Instagram and you’ll see plenty of photos that don’t have much to do with vehicles: starry skies, campfires, women in leggings doing yoga by the ocean. Like the best marketing terms, “vanlife” is both highly specific and expansive. It’s a one-word life-style signifier that has come to evoke a number of contemporary trends: a renewed interest in the American road trip, a culture of hippie-inflected outdoorsiness, and a life free from the tyranny of a nine-to-five office job.

Vanlifers have a tendency to call their journeys “projects,” and to describe them in the elevator-pitch terms that make sense to potential sponsors. While still in Central America, King and Smith came up with a name for their project: Where’s My Office Now, a reference to their goal of fusing travel and work. “We wanted to see if it was possible to combine this nomadic hippie life with a nine-to-five job,” Smith explained. After the couple returned from Central America but before they bought a van, King registered a Web site and set up social-media accounts. “The business part of me knew there was potential,” she said. Smith, who was still using a flip phone, was suspicious of his girlfriend’s preoccupation with social media, worrying that it would detract from the experience.

King and Smith were now professional vanlifers. They began working more product placement into their Instagram posts. Since then, their sponsorships—which King prefers to call “alliances”—have included Kettle Brand potato chips, Clif Bars, and Synergy Organic Clothing. Last summer, the tourism board of Saskatchewan paid the couple seven thousand dollars to drive around the grasslands of central Canada with other popular vanlifers, documenting their (subsidized) kayaking trips and horseback rides.

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Adventures in Solitude: A Reading List

In my adolescence, summer was a time of self-improvement. I planned my reinvention meticulously. Come the fresh school year, I’d breeze through the doors of my high school with perfect hair, new clothes, and a laser focus. Of course, I had a limited budget, hair that refused to straighten completely, and a tendency to get discouraged or distracted by the slightest obstacle. To be honest, the fun wasn’t in the result. It was the daydreaming, the dog-earing pages of Seventeen and the endless bookmarking of WikiHow articles in Internet Explorer that made everything seem possible.

This summer is my twenty-seventh. I’m looking forward to self-reflection, but I won’t be switching shampoos or going on a shopping spree. Instead, I’m going to live alone for the first time.

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The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

This week, we’re featuring stories from Richard Beck, Rebecca Mead, Sarah Barker, Dylan Matthews, and Sarah Scoles.

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Curiosity, Unfettered: Margaret Atwood as the Prophet of Dystopia

At The New Yorker, Rebecca Mead profiles Margaret Atwood, Canada’s prolific queen of literature. Mead and Atwood cover the resonance of The Handmaid’s Tale in Donald Trump’s America, Atwood’s approach to feminism, and the purpose of fiction today. Beloved for her incisive mind along with her works, Atwood uses unlimited curiosity as her approach to a life well-lived—whether that’s tenting while birding in Panama, engaging with her 1.5 million Twitter followers, or writing as a septuagenarian. “I don’t think she judges anything in advance as being beneath her, or beyond her, or outside her realm of interest,” says her friend and collaborator, Naomi Alderman.

Atwood has long been Canada’s most famous writer, and current events have polished the oracular sheen of her reputation. With the election of an American President whose campaign trafficked openly in the deprecation of women—and who, on his first working day in office, signed an executive order withdrawing federal funds from overseas women’s-health organizations that offer abortion services—the novel that Atwood dedicated to Mary Webster has reappeared on best-seller lists. “The Handmaid’s Tale” is also about to be serialized on television, in an adaptation, starring Elisabeth Moss, that will stream on Hulu. The timing could not be more fortuitous, though many people may wish that it were less so. In a photograph taken the day after the Inauguration, at the Women’s March on Washington, a protester held a sign bearing a slogan that spoke to the moment: “MAKE MARGARET ATWOOD FICTION AGAIN.”

Given that her works are a mainstay of women’s-studies curricula, and that she is clearly committed to women’s rights, Atwood’s resistance to a straightforward association with feminism can come as a surprise. But this wariness reflects her bent toward precision, and a scientific sensibility that was ingrained from childhood: Atwood wants the terms defined before she will state her position. Her feminism assumes women’s rights to be human rights, and is born of having been raised with a presumption of absolute equality between the sexes. “My problem was not that people wanted me to wear frilly pink dresses—it was that I wanted to wear frilly pink dresses, and my mother, being as she was, didn’t see any reason for that,” she said. Atwood’s early years in the forest endowed her with a sense of self-determination, and with a critical distance on codes of femininity—an ability to see those codes as cultural practices worthy of investigation, not as necessary conditions to be accepted unthinkingly. This capacity for quizzical scrutiny underlies much of her fiction: not accepting the world as it is permits Atwood to imagine the world as it might be.

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Who’s Been Seeding the Alt-Right? Follow the Money to Robert Mercer

stacks of united states $10 bills

Jane Mayer profiles hedge fund manager, alt-right supporter, and political funder Robert Mercer in the New Yorker. He’s the man who brought us Kellyanne Conway, Steve Bannon, and eventually, Donald Trump, and his worldview may sound particularly familiar to anyone who’s been reading up on Bannon.

Magerman told the Wall Street Journal that Mercer’s political opinions “show contempt for the social safety net that he doesn’t need, but many Americans do.” He also said that Mercer wants the U.S. government to be “shrunk down to the size of a pinhead.” Several former colleagues of Mercer’s said that his views are akin to Objectivism, the philosophy of Ayn Rand. Magerman told me, “Bob believes that human beings have no inherent value other than how much money they make. A cat has value, he’s said, because it provides pleasure to humans. But if someone is on welfare they have negative value. If he earns a thousand times more than a schoolteacher, then he’s a thousand times more valuable.” Magerman added, “He thinks society is upside down—that government helps the weak people get strong, and makes the strong people weak by taking their money away, through taxes.” He said that this mind-set was typical of “instant billionaires” in finance, who “have no stake in society,” unlike the industrialists of the past, who “built real things.”

Another former high-level Renaissance employee said, “Bob thinks the less government the better. He’s happy if people don’t trust the government. And if the President’s a bozo? He’s fine with that. He wants it to all fall down.”

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Why We Still Can’t Quit F. Scott Fitzgerald

It’s been almost a century since a 23-year-old F. Scott Fitzgerald penned “The I.O.U.,” a short story that pokes fun at the publishing industry’s obsession with sensation over substance. But until now, you couldn’t read it; it was among Fitzgerald’s still-unpublished papers. Last week, the long-lost story appeared in The New Yorker, another chapter in what the magazine calls its “imperfect romance” with the author. In 1925, Fitzgerald was “was a little too famous to appear often in its upstart pages,” though they were able to snag two poems and three “humorous short stories” before he died in 1940. Read more…

The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

This week, we’re sharing stories by Sarah Menkedick, Adam Davidson, Ross Andersen, Victor Luckerson, and Tara Murtha.

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Leaving Aleppo: ‘A distant star / Exhausts its light on the sleep of the dead.’

At The New Yorker, Pauls Toutonghi lovingly recalls his grandfather, Philippe Elias Tütünji, a writer, poet, and translator from Aleppo, Syria. Tütünji immigrated to America during World War II and never gave up his dream to achieve success as a poet in his adopted homeland. Working menial, low-paying jobs to support his family, and “full of immigrant ambition,” he once visited actor Danny Thomas in a bid to entice Thomas to record one of his poems as a song — a feat Tütünji believed would make him a star.

And so when my oldest aunt, Agnes, got a job as a stenographer at Standard Oil, and, with dizzying speed, met a young Standard Oil geologist, married him, and moved to Los Angeles, my grandfather decided that the rest of the family would follow. He fled again. The Toutonghis raffled off all their possessions to pay for tickets on an ocean liner. On May 26, 1946, they disembarked from Alexandria, Egypt, on the S.S. Vulcania, bound for New York City. On the ship’s Immigration and Naturalization Service Form I-415—a form that is still in use today—my family’s race is listed as Syrian. In the next column, the one reserved for country of citizenship, there is a different word: “Stateless.” Upon arrival in Manhattan, the Toutonghis collected their luggage and spent their last money on bus tickets bound for California. Stateless, they began a new life in a new nation—one that was, for the most part, open and welcoming to these hopeful refugees.

Still, my grandfather was a recent immigrant, full of ambition. He was a poet, and he’d written a few lyric stanzas in English, which he dreamed of turning into a song. It was, he would always claim—even decades later—a poem worth “a million dollars,” and “unlike anything anyone had ever heard.” On the day of his meeting with Thomas, he went to the post office and spent twenty-eight cents to send the poem to himself through registered mail—a poor man’s copyright. On the envelope, he wrote his address, twice, and then added, underlined: “Poeme in English,” and “its title had never been used.”

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The Last Decent Person in Washington

Librarian of Congress

There is a straight line from the worst person in the government to quite possibly the best: Every tweet that Donald Trump sends each morning, setting off news alerts for a groggy American public, pings across millions of timelines before settling in its final resting place, the Library of Congress. The keeper of those tweets—and of George Gershwin’s piano, Rosa Parks’s peanut-butter-pancake recipe, and Bob Hope’s joke collection—is Carla Hayden, the Librarian of Congress, an Obama appointee who embodies the calm, measured wisdom of the 44th President and the forward-looking hope of that era.

The New Yorker’s Sarah Larson visited the library in the days after the Inauguration and she wanders through the collection like a person tasked with cataloging Noah’s Ark, the last great treasury of humanity tossed upon the seas of an angry God. At the helm is Hayden, a career librarian with a drawerful of butterscotch candy. Hayden replaces 87-year-old James Billington, a Bush-era appointee who had “been asleep at the switch” as the library struggled with the digital age. The library is still far behind where it should be technologically—Kyle Chayka at n+1 noted that the library did not have a Chief Information Officer from 2012 to late 2015, among other institutional failures—but Hayden’s cool competence is a light in the bureaucratic darkness.

Hayden met the Obamas when they all lived in Chicago. When I asked about her relationship with them, she was reticent—no anecdotes, no self-aggrandizement. (She also gently demurred from talking about Trump.) But if you watch footage of the Inauguration, you can see the affection there. Hayden, in a black coat and black gloves, is seated just to the right of the Capitol door. Michelle Obama, looking melancholy, smiles and waves in her direction. A minute later, someone yells, “maga!” Horns sound, and Chuck Schumer, Joe Biden, Nancy Pelosi, and President Obama emerge. Obama sees Hayden, waves, beams, approaches her, and leans in for a hug. “Sir!” she says, heartily, patting him on the back.

In her office, Hayden picked up the Jefferson candy bowl and offered me some butterscotch. “This is my secret sauce,” she said. I asked if there was anything in the library’s collections that people might love to explore but not know about. “Oh, yes! Oh, my goodness, yes!” she said. “Like the comic-book collection.” It’s the largest in the world. She described the depth of knowledge among the librarians: “You’ll say, ‘I’d like to see the original “Luke Cage,” ’ because of the TV show. And then they tell you, Luke Cage first appeared in this comic…’ And they just keep going.”

I later visited Georgia Higley, the head of the newspaper section of the serial division, who showed me an array of comics milestones (“All-Nego Comics” from 1947; Batman; Luke Cage), many so valuable they’re available only to scholars. I was struck that even “Archie” had notes of the country’s painful history and present: “The Mirth of a Nation,” the cover said, as ice-skating Archie flew over some barrels, toward a hole. “Wonder Woman,” Winter Issue No. 7, from 1943, was called “Wonder Woman for president.” There she was, with her boots and golden lasso, banging on a lectern covered in stars-and-stripes bunting. Below that, it said, “1000 years in the future!

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The New Yorker Releases a Powerful New Cover

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.”