As a senior in college, I took a class on Jane Austen—a great class with, it must be said, a weird vibe. Almost all of the students were women (out of around a hundred people, only five or ten were men), and it was a hothouse of Jane Austen obsession. In the first lecture, the professor identified herself as a Janeite—a member of “the curious American cult of Jane Austen,” according to the BBC—and, when she asked if we were Janeites, too, scores of people raised their hands.
If anything, the fervor of the Janeites puts into relief a fact almost too obvious to notice: the world of books is a romantic world. Romance structures literary life, and to be a reader is, often, to follow its choreography, from susceptibility and discovery (“I just saw it there in the bookstore!”) to infatuation, intimacy, identification, and obsession. We connect with books in an intellectual way, but the most valuable relationships we have with them are emotional; to say that you merely admire or respect a book is, on some level, to insult it. Feelings are so fundamental to literary life that it can be hard to imagine a way of relating to literature that doesn’t involve loving it. Without all those emotions, what would reading be?
A summer afternoon at the Reichstag. Soft Berlin light filters down through the great glass dome, past tourists ascending the spiral ramp, and into the main hall of parliament. Half the members’ seats are empty. At the lectern, a short, slightly hunched figure in a fuchsia jacket, black slacks, and a helmet of no-color hair is reading a speech from a binder. Angela Merkel, the Chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany and the world’s most powerful woman, is making every effort not to be interesting.
American politics is so polarized that Congress has virtually stopped functioning; the consensus in Germany is so stable that new laws pour forth from parliament while meaningful debate has almost disappeared.
“The German self-criticism and self-loathing are part of the success story—getting strong by hating yourself,” Mariam Lau, a political correspondent for the weekly newspaper Die Zeit, told me. “And Merkel had to reëducate herself, too. She’s part of the self-reëducation of Germany.”
When I first saw the musical “Annie,” as a kid, I wasn’t all that interested in the zippy orphan star. I fixated, instead, on President Franklin D. Roosevelt in his bulky wheelchair. Polio put him there, I learned; this was the first I’d ever heard of the virus, from which even White House-bound men weren’t exempt.
I took from that discovery something simple and a little selfish: a child’s sense of relief that Americans had once feared an often-crippling disease until, one day, a page of the script was flipped. In 1952, less than a decade after F.D.R.’s death, a vaccine emerged that reduced the number of U.S. cases from a high of nearly sixty thousand, that same year, to virtually zero, by 1979. After that, polio could be written up as a relic for museums and musicals; we could grow up to be the scourge’s historians, we were told, and not its memoirists.
That “we,” of course, has since proven uncomfortably limited, a symptom of its own “Annie”-style naïveté. Today, polio still claims a certain corner of the globe.
Plucking a few events out of the vastness of the world and declaring them to be the news of the day is a mysterious and complicated project. Sometimes what’s news is inarguable—the outbreak of war, a head-of-state transition, natural calamity—but very often it falls into the category of the resonant incident. It isn’t a turn in the course of history, but it strikes editors as illustrative of something important. Take crime. If crimes don’t involve anyone powerful or well known, they generally aren’t considered news. But a few such crimes do become news, big news, and hold the public’s imagination in a tight, enduring grip.
An excellent example is the murder of Kitty Genovese, a twenty-eight-year-old bar manager, by Winston Moseley, a twenty-nine-year-old computer punch-card operator, just after three in the morning on Friday, March 13, 1964, in Kew Gardens, Queens. The fact that this crime, one of six hundred and thirty-six murders in New York City that year, became an American obsession—condemned by mayors and Presidents, puzzled over by academics and theologians, studied in freshman psychology courses, re-created in dozens of research experiments, even used four decades later to justify the Iraq war—can be attributed to the influence of one man, A. M. Rosenthal, of the New York Times.
In 1964, Rosenthal was forty-one years old and relatively new on the job as the newspaper’s metropolitan editor, an important step in his ascent to a seventeen-year reign over the Times’ newsroom. Ten days after Genovese was killed, he went downtown to have lunch with New York City’s police commissioner, Michael Murphy. Murphy spent most of the lunch talking about how worried he was that the civil-rights movement, which was at its peak, would set off racial violence in New York, but toward the end Rosenthal asked him about a curious case, then being covered in the tabloids, in which two men had confessed to the same murder. He learned that one of the competing confessors, Winston Moseley, had definitely murdered a woman in Kew Gardens, Kitty Genovese. That killing had been reported at the time, including in a four-paragraph squib buried deep within theTimes, but Murphy said that what had struck him about it was not the crime itself but the behavior of thirty-eight eyewitnesses. Over a grisly half hour of stabbing and screaming, Murphy said, none of them had called the police. Rosenthal assigned a reporter named Martin Gansberg to pursue the story from that angle. On March 27th, the Times ran a front-page story under a four-column headline:
37 WHO SAW MURDER DIDN’T CALL THE POLICE
Apathy at Stabbing of Queens Woman Shocks Inspector
The following day, the Times ran a reaction story in which a procession of experts offered explanations of what had happened, or said that it was inexplicable. From then on, the story—as they wouldn’t have said in 1964—went viral.
When I started working as a medical resident, in 2004, I heard from a patient I had inherited from a graduating resident. The patient had an appointment scheduled in a couple weeks. “But I need your help now,” he said.
He was a former construction worker who had hurt himself on the job a couple of years earlier. He told me, “I also need some more OxyContin to tide me over until I can see you.” The hospital computer system told me that he had been taking twenty milligrams of OxyContin, three times a day, for at least the last couple of years. I had rarely seen such high doses of narcotics prescribed for such long periods of time. I’d seen narcotics prescribed in the hospital to patients who had been injured, or to those with pain from an operation or from cancer. But I didn’t have much experience with narcotics for outpatients. I figured that if the previous resident—now a fully licensed doctor—was doing this, then it must be O.K.
What I didn’t know was that my time in medical school had coincided with a boom in the prescribing of narcotics by outpatient doctors, driven partly by the pharmaceutical companies that sold those drugs. Between 1999 and 2010, sales of these “opioid analgesics”—medications like Vicodin, Percocet, and OxyContin—quadrupled.
Whence, and where, and why the English major? The subject is in every mouth—or, at least, is getting kicked around agitatedly in columns and reviews and Op-Ed pieces. The English major is vanishing from our colleges as the Latin prerequisite vanished before it, we’re told, a dying choice bound to a dead subject. The estimable Verlyn Klinkenborg reports in the Times that “At Pomona College (my alma mater) this spring, 16 students graduated with an English major out of a student body of 1,560, a terribly small number,” and from other, similar schools, other, similar numbers.
In response, a number of defenses have been mounted, none of them, so far, terribly persuasive even to one rooting for them to persuade. As the bromides roll by and the platitudes chase each other round the page, those in favor of ever more and better English majors feel a bit the way we Jets fans feel, every fall, when our offense trots out on the field: I’m cheering as loud as I can, but let’s be honest—this is not working well.
When people talk about the rise of great TV, they inevitably credit one show, “The Sopranos.” Even before James Gandolfini’s death, the HBO drama’s mystique was secure: novelistic and cinematic, David Chase’s auteurist masterpiece cracked open the gangster genre like a rib cage, releasing the latent ambition of television, and launching us all into a golden age.
“The Sopranos” deserves the hype. Yet there’s something screwy about the way that the show and its cable-drama blood brothers have come to dominate the conversation, elbowing other forms of greatness out of the frame. It’s a bias that bubbles up early in Brett Martin’s otherwise excellent new book, “Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution: From ‘The Sopranos’ and ‘The Wire’ to ‘Mad Men’ and ‘Breaking Bad,’ ” a deeply reported and dishy account of just how your prestige-cable sausage is made. I tore through the book, yet when I reached Martin’s chronicle of the rise of HBO I felt a jolt. “It might as well have been a tourism campaign for a post-Rudolph Giuliani, de-ethnicized Gotham awash in money,” Martin writes of one of my favorite shows. “Its characters were types as familiar as those in ‘The Golden Girls’: the Slut, the Prude, the Career Woman, the Heroine. But they talked more explicitly, certainly about their bodies, but also about their desires and discontents outside the bedroom, than women on TV ever had before.”
Martin gives “Sex and the City” credit for jump-starting HBO, but the condescension is palpable, and the grudging praise is reserved for only one aspect of the series—the rawness of its subject matter. Martin hardly invented this attitude: he is simply reiterating what has become the reflexive consensus on the show, right down to the hackneyed “Golden Girls” gag. Even as “The Sopranos” has ascended to TV’s Mt. Olympus, the reputation of “Sex and the City” has shrunk and faded, like some tragic dry-clean-only dress tossed into a decade-long hot cycle. By the show’s fifteen-year anniversary, this year, we fans had trained ourselves to downgrade the show to a “guilty pleasure,” to mock its puns, to get into self-flagellating conversations about those blinkered and blinged-out movies. Whenever a new chick-centric series débuts, there are invidious comparisons: don’t worry, it’s no “Sex and the City,” they say. As if that were a good thing.