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Tuesday, October 22, 2019

The Rise And Fall Of Conde Nast, by Kyle Chayka, New Republic

The equation of upscale readers and upscale brands with profit, projecting an aspirational image of the ideal consumer through both editorial and ads so that vulnerable readers would chase it, made Nast’s fortune many times over. His company established the template of the editor as a heroic, godlike figure casting down commandments from a print Mount Olympus, a status that continued after Nast’s death through the twentieth century. As recent eulogistic memoirs from iconic Condé editors, including Tina Brown and Ruth Reichl, demonstrate, the aspirational model worked pretty well—paying for private cars, lavish launch parties, and personal office renovations—until it ran squarely into the internet in the 2000s and, even worse, played catch-up to image-heavy social media in the 2010s. 

Suddenly print magazines and editors-in-chief were no longer the arbiters of aspirational taste nor of class-based advertising. Google’s algorithms took over the latter and Instagram influencers the former. Many of Condé’s magazines, including the old Glamour, are now shuttering, getting sold, or cutting down their print schedules. At a moment when the media industry is less glamorous than ever, the story of this man and the empire he built is not simply a story about the power of magazines to define the style and mood of an era. The elitism that ensured Condé’s long reign over taste has lately also brought about the company’s precipitous decline.

King, God, Smart-Ass Author: Reconsidering Metafiction, by Ed Simon, The Millions

Like all of us, Daffy Duck was perennially put upon by his Creator. The sputtering, stuttering, rageful water fowl’s life was a morass of indignity, embarrassment, anxiety, and existential horror. Despite all of the humiliation Daffy had to contend with, the aquatic bird was perfectly willing to shake his wings at the unfair universe. As expertly delivered by voice artist Mel Blanc, Daffy could honk “Who is responsible for this? I demand that you show yourself!” In animator Chuck Jones’s brilliant and classic 1953 episode of Merrie Melodies titled “Duck Amuck,” he presents Daffy as a veritable Everyduck, a sinner in the hands of a smart-assed illustrator. “Duck Amuck” has remained a canonical episode in the Warner Brothers cartoon catalog, its postmodern, metafictional experimentation heralded for its daring and cheekiness. Any account of what critics very loosely term “postmodern literature”—with its playfulness, its self-referentiality, and it’s breaking of the fourth wall—that considers Italo Calvino, Jorge Luis Borges, Vladimir Nabokov, and Paul Auster but not Jones is only telling part of the metafictional story. Not for nothing, but two decades ago, “Duck Amuck” was added to the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as an enduring piece of American culture.

The Atheist Illusion, by Ed Simon, Los Angeles Review of Books

Whenever i’m misidentified as an atheist writer, which happens frequently, I always find it inordinately frustrating. Such an accusation is understandable, but born from a superficial reading of my theological eccentricities. To be an atheist proper, I’d have to know what the word “God” means exactly in the first place; my entire writing career has been an attempt to find out just that. Call me disingenuous or cagey, but I’ve got enough of a drunken sense of the numinous that I’m confident that “atheist” isn’t the correct designation for myself. Mine may be an idiosyncratic gospel, but it’s no less God-intoxicated because of it. Not that the presumption of some pure abstracted atheism would necessarily offend me, but the term has acquired a certain connotation in modern parlance. Where once atheists may have been figured as brave free-thinkers, today their contemporary descendants have (perhaps no less admirably, if in an ironic way) proved that an atheist can be just as proudly stupid as everybody else.

I’m speaking of the so-called “New Atheists,” the indomitable quartet of the late essayist and Trotskyite-turned-neoconservative-apologist Christopher Hitchens, the biologist Richard Dawkins, philosopher Daniel Dennett, and I’m unsure what exactly he is, but the media personality Sam Harris. In the decade after the 9/11 attacks, the New Atheists dressed up warmed-over positivist fallacies, as well as historical and literary misinterpretations, with a bourgeoisie politics whose radicalism was in inverse relationship to how interesting its proponents thought that they were. Where atheism was once the position of metaphysical radicals like Nietzsche and Schopenhauer, now it was the refugee of “Well, actually…” guys on the internet. Philosophers, theologians, and religious studies scholars have made a veritable genre out of the anti-Dawkinsoniade, but this essay won’t be in that tradition (mostly).

Travel Has Never Been "Authentic", by Kyle Chayka, Vox

Places like Perlan — magnets for visitors and secondary representations of the country’s natural charms — are increasingly a necessity for Iceland, which in recent years has become synonymous with the term “overtourism.” Overtourism is what happens to a place when an avalanche of tourists “changes the quality of life for people who actually live there,” says Andrew Sheivachman, an editor at the travel website Skift, whose 2016 report about Iceland established the term. In other words, Sheivachman says, “a place becomes mainstream.” Iceland has about 300,000 residents, but it received more than 2.3 million overnight visitors last year. Tourists have flooded the island, crashing their camper vans in the wilderness, pooping in the streets of Reykjavik, and eroding the scenic canyon Fjaðrárgljúfur, where Justin Bieber shot a music video in 2015, forcing it to close temporarily. No wonder the museum is safer.

Overtourism also comes with a kind of stigma signified by that word “mainstream.” A reputation for excessive crowds means the tastemaking travel elite actually start avoiding a place, like a too-popular restaurant. “The early-adopter travelers are already onto the next cool, cheap, relatively intact place,” Sheivachman says. Since the Skift article, the term has been widely applied to places like Barcelona, Venice, and Tulum to suggest that no one who’s in the know would want to go there anymore.

Milk In Bags, Explained, by Brenna Houck, Eater

The concept might seem odd to those who didn’t grow up drinking bagged milk, but to roughly half of Canadian milk consumers, the milk bladder is a way of life. It’s estimated that 75 to 85 percent of Ontario residents purchase their milk in a pouch, but Canadians aren’t the only dairy drinkers repping sack milk. People in India, China, Israel, Russia, Ukraine, Iran, Columbia, Uruguay, Argentina, Hungary, South Africa, and even in some parts of the U.S. drink milk in bags, which some argue is a more economical and environmentally friendly packaging style.

So why did some countries adopt the milk pouch, while others did not? And how do those pouches work, anyway? Here, now, are the answers to all your burning questions about milk in bags.

On Repeat, by Tim Gorichanaz, The Smart Set

When I tell people I run ultramarathons, a common response is: I don’t even like driving that far. Don’t you get bored running for so long? It’s so repetitive. Yes, well, yes, I say, it is repetitive, and sometimes it is boring. In a sense, it’s just one foot in front of the other a million times until you’re done. And then you do it again tomorrow. It doesn’t get much more repetitive than that. But all the same, I enjoy doing it. I just enjoy running. The conversation only goes downhill from there. Usually, we change to another topic. We’re unsettled because something seems amiss here: We think we shouldn’t enjoy things that are repetitive and boring.

A Romantic Comedy So Dark It Makes You Cry, by Jamie Fisher, New York Times

There are a handful of novelists who excel in describing, often from ludicrously comic heights, the Russian-American experience. Call it the Borscht Shelf: Gary Shteyngart, Boris Fishman and the resplendent Lara Vapnyar. Vapnyar’s latest novel begins with an exquisitely distilled example of her gifts: “One week before my mother died, I went to a Russian food store on Staten Island to buy caviar.” The moment is couched in depressive humor (“I was brought up in the Soviet Union, where caviar was considered a special food reserved for children and dying parents”) and chased with deflating truth (her mother doesn’t even want the caviar). The narrator eats it herself, feeling “as if I were robbing a grave.”

Delicate Mundanity: On Maxim Osipov’s “Rock, Paper, Scissors: And Other Stories”, by Helen Stuhr-Rommereim, Los Angeles Review of Books

It may be the irresistible temptation and ultimate folly of someone who studies 19th-century Russian literature — like the author of this review — to impose that era’s tight-knit intertextuality on a collection of 21st-century stories. But there are myriad clues that Osipov’s tales are intended, at least in part, to engage this past tradition, and paying attention to those moments reveals the author’s interest in the ways that the relationship between literature and life can become a question of life and death.

As A Father Lies Dying, His Family Reckons With Their Troubled Legacy, by Brock Clarke, New York Times

That’s the novel’s through line — Victor lies in a hospital bed in New Orleans while everyone else waits for him to die — and in lesser hands this might be static. But Attenberg gets so deep into the psyches of her characters that the story ends up seeming electric with ruin, and with possible resurrection.

Tim O’Brien, A Veteran Of War And Fatherhood, Opens Up To His Sons, by John Schwartz, New York Times

O’Brien finds more of the secrets of life in Hemingway than I do, and even I, when confronted with his most overweening examples of parental joy (no matter how self-effacing the delivery), had to shake my head. Yet O’Brien’s narration is gentle and genuine. As the reader of his audiobook, he’s not an actor; he’s simply a dad, talking to you.

An Inventor’s Life That Was Incandescent Any Way You Look At It, by David Oshinsky, New York Times

For all his quirks, Morris reminds us, Edison never lost sight of the future. And that, perhaps, is the key takeaway from this elegant, loosely crafted, idiosyncratic book. No inventor did more to nudge the world toward modernity, and few had a better feel for what the next generation of inventors might pursue. Topping that list was a plea for a greener country — not because Edison was an environmentalist, but because he despised the excess and inefficiency that had come to define American industry and leisure, thanks in no small part to his close chum, Henry Ford. “This scheme of combustion in order to get power makes me sick to think of — it is so wasteful,” he grumbled. “Sunshine is a form of energy, and the winds and the tides. … There must surely come a time when heat and power will be stored in unlimited quantities in every community, all gathered by natural forces.” He added, in true Edison fashion: “I’ll do the trick myself if someone doesn’t get at it.”