A retrospective glance

The New Yorker, as you may have heard, has redesigned its website, and is making all articles published since 2007 free, for the summer, in hopes of addicting you as a reader. Once you’re hooked, they’ll winch up the drawbridge, and you’ll have to pay, pay, pay. But for the moment let’s not think about either the metaphor I just mixed or its consequences, shall we?

A self-publicist’s work is never done, and it seemed to behoove me to take advantage of the occasion. So I googled myself. It turns out that I’ve been writing for the New Yorker since 2005 and that ten articles of mine have appeared in the print magazine over the years. All seem to be on the free side of the paywall as of this writing (though a glitch appears to have put several of the early articles almost entirely into italics). Enjoy!

“Rail-Splitting,” 7 November 2005: Was Lincoln depressed? Was he a team player?
“The Terror Last Time,” 13 March 2006: How much evidence did you need to hang a terrorist in 1887?
“Surveillance Society,” 11 September 2006: In the 1930s, a group of British intellectuals tried to record the texture of everyday life
“Bad Precedent,” 29 January 2007: Andrew Jackson declares martial law
“There She Blew,” 23 July 2007: The history of whaling
“Twilight of the Books,” 24 December 2007: This is your brain on reading
“There Was Blood,” 19 January 2009: A fossil-fueled massacre
“Bootylicious,” 7 September 2009: The economics of piracy
“It Happened One Decade,” 21 September 2009: The books and movies that buoyed America during the Great Depression
“Tea and Antipathy,” 20 December 2010: Was the Tea Party such a good idea the first time around?
Unfortunate Events, 22 October 2012: What was the War of 1812 even about?
“Four Legs Good,” 28 October 2013: Jack London goes to the dogs
“The Red and the Scarlet,” 30 June 2014: Where the pursuit of experience took Stephen Crane

History of the assembly line from below

A friend advises me that Faber Finds, the semi-automated paperback reprint series launched recently by the British publisher Faber & Faber, has just made available most of Mass-Observation's early works. (Mass-Observation was a British movement devoted to the study of everday life; I wrote about its history in "Surveillance Society," an article published in the 11 September 2006 issue of The New Yorker, and at the time posted an online supplement on this blog.) Some of M-O's books have been reprinted over the years, but Faber Finds is restoring more of them to circulation than ever, and some of the books are worth reading as literature. The most artful is May the Twelfth, a sort of distributed prose documentary of the coronation of George VI (skip the theoretical passages, which look a little algebraic and don't make much sense), and perhaps the easiest to enjoy is The Pub and the People, a study of drinking and other behaviors in Britain's public houses which makes its sympathies clear ("Hitler, Mussolini, and the Mikado are teetotalers. Baldwin, Marx, Engels, and the Duke of Windsor are not"). I was able to mention these and a few other M-O books in my article, however, so what most pleases me now is Faber's restoration of another title, War Factory, which I didn't then have room to discuss.

In 1943, a Mass-Observer named Celia Fremlin, a psychologist who was later the author of crime thrillers, wrote War Factory, a brief, gem-like account of petulance and vacant-mindedness on an assembly line, where Fremlin worked incognito. The first hours of the repetitive work, she observes, are "definitely pleasant, rather like knitting in a fairly plain pattern," and she is at pains to be just to this pleasure: "It is hard for anyone who has not tried it to realise the curious, almost exhilarating sense of the slipping away of all responsibilities that comes over people after a few days in this sort of work." In the end, though, she finds such mindless labor "quite unsuited to adult human beings," and she describes with novelistic flair the pettiness, grumbling, overeating, "lavatory-mongering," resentment, and general air of passivity it induces. Hilda, a heavyset woman, eats sandwiches made by her mother, stolidly, without knowing what's in them. Molly gloats over how much she's making. Sadie dawdles but shares her candy and cigarettes. There's an element of Pale Fire pastiche in the footnotes, which were written in rebuttal by the manager of the factory—a rebuttal for the most part obtuse.  The book is full of insights as subtle as its jokes; the management scientists of the world neglect it at their peril.

Mass-Observation Online

The University of Sussex’s archive of Mass-Observation, the British movement I wrote about for the New Yorker in the fall, has been digitized by a company called Adam Matthew Digital. The database looks quite fun: all the day-surveys, all the diaries, all the directives, and all the books. And yet, somehow, there is "no overlap with the microfilm series," or so the snazzy pamphlet claims. There are also some Humphrey Spender photographs—rather nice ones, if what’s visible in the pamphlet is representative. The price tag, alas, is $49,500, but I can always hope that Columbia or the NYPL buys a subscription.

Mass-Observation on the radio

Jesse Thorn, who hosts the public radio show the Sound of Young America out of Los Angeles, interviewed me yesterday about “Surveillance Society,” my New Yorker article on Mass-Observation, and he’s running the interview in his latest show. He’s an enthusiastic and knowledgeable interviewer, even of a somewhat tongue-tied interviewee. If your local radio station doesn’t happen to carry his program, you can download it as an MP3 here.

The anecdote from the Mass-Observation book May the Twelfth that I attempt, without complete success, to recall from memory for Jesse during the interview reads in fact as follows: “7.20 a.m. Get up. Feel rather liverish, with a headache. Put on dressing gown and bedroom slippers—go down to kitchen—put small copper kettle (find myself thinking ‘Fancy this still going’—it has leaked slightly for years) on methylated spirit lamp. . . . I go into the kitchen and note some dead black beetles (? or cockroaches—not sure) on the floor—on their backs, my mother having used ‘Flit’ the night before. I feel slightly revolted…” I don’t know why I recalled this detail from May the Twelfth, instead of the dream a young man had of murdering Franco with a garden rake and then being dragged underwater by an octopus, but somehow the dead beetles were within easier reach of my short-term memory than the octopus was.