Anyone who enjoyed Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point or Blink or Steven D. Levitt’s Freakonomics, will likely be interested in The Wisdom of Crowds by the New Yorker’s business columnist, James Surowiecki. Surowiecki’s premise is that groups of diverse people can collectively come to a better conclusion than even the smartest individual. Like other books of pop economics, Surowiecki employs dozens of real world examples. Among the most interesting was a discussion of why “groupthink” led to the crash of the space shuttle Columbia. Another was Surowiecki’s persuasive argument that a “market” where the probability of terrorist attacks (or other threats) could be bought and sold, would be better at predicting those attacks than our current system of intelligence. Unlike Gladwell, however, Surowiecki fails to make his examples sing. Crowds is weighed down by long stretches of prose in which Surowiecki touches on one academic study after another, continually referring back to his premise, “the wisdom of crowds,” as if trying to drill it into his readers’ heads. Certainly, though, anyone with a passing interest in economics – and especially the behavioral aspects of economics – will enjoy the book, but it fails to compete with the genre’s better examples.
I am consistently drawn in, and consistently disappointed, by bio-novels about women made unhappy by famous men. I read The Paris Wife, about Hadley Hemingway. I read Loving Frank, about Frank Lloyd Wright’s mistress. I read the diaries of Sofya Tolstoy. And now I’ve read Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald. I put each of them aside a heavy sigh when I’ve finished. I’m not disappointed in the books, but in the lives of the women. The point of these books is to tell their side of the story, but in reality, and definitely in Zelda’s case, they didn’t get their own side of the story. Z follows Scott and Zelda from their courtship in Zelda’s native Montgomery, Ala., to their newlywed years in New York and then the long spiral into unhappiness via Paris, the Riviera, Hollywood, Maryland, and a few mental institutions. Although there are sweet moments in the beginning, the narrative quickly devolves into a “party, fight, repress, repeat” structure. The only thing that changes is the subject of the fight, but even that doesn’t vary widely. On its own, it’s not a compelling story. What makes it noteworthy is that these are the parties and fights experienced by the man who wrote The Great Gatsby, and this is the woman he made unhappy. Zelda had aspirations in painting, dancing, and writing, and showed promise in each. Scott prevented her from pursuing painting and dance beyond hobbies, and when she did write short stories or essays, they were published under his name (to ensure acceptance and higher payment). When she finally published a novel, Save Me the Waltz, under her own name, Scott edited out all the parts that made him look bad, and the novel failed. In the book, Zelda refers to her novel as “another failed endeavour.” In Therese Anne Fowler’s eyes, it’s another “what if?” What if she hadn’t let Scott edit her novel? What if she had become a professional dancer? What if she didn’t have to move every time Scott alienated another group of their friends? What if she hadn’t married him at all? Would her life have been easier, more fulfilled? Fowler’s novel asks these questions, but can’t answer them. Nothing can, because we only have the story of what actually happened. These books about Hadley and Sofya and Zelda ask us to imagine how much easier their lives would have been if they’d had their own stories. At one point in the book Zelda asks herself, “Whose life is this anyway?” Not hers, is the answer. There’s a lingering myth that even if it’s stormy, it’s something of a privilege to be married to greatness, that letting your life be subsumed by an artist’s is a beautiful sacrifice to what he creates and a chance to be immortal. It is true that without Zelda, we wouldn’t have Gatsby, Tender is the Night, and The Beautiful and Damned -- after all, she’s in those books -- but it’s another matter to assume that she was content to sacrifice her happiness for three great novels. Fitzgerald and Zelda were a complicated couple, and Fowler illustrates how they could love each other, make each other crazy (sometimes literally), and despite the turmoil stay together. Fowler doesn’t show Zelda simply as a miserable wife, or as someone who was happy to live in service to Fitzgerald’s work, but rather as a wife who “was fighting for my right to exist independently in the world, to realize myself, to steer my own boat if I felt like it.” Paradoxically, this is the reason to write and read about Zelda, because she deserved a life much more interesting than the one that she got. Interesting to her, that is, a life she could have given her energy and talents to, not just a life made interesting by famous friends and European capitals. Fowler’s intricately drawn portrait of Zelda is less a titillating story than a museum of untapped potential. We can never know what that potential might have lead to, but we can look on as she carries it with her through life, as it slowly becomes too late. What disappoints me about the lives of Zelda, Hadley, and Sofya is that they’re museums of untold stories rather than legitimately good stories. They were all remarkable women who thought that marrying remarkable men would, naturally, make their lives remarkable. But repeatedly anything great in their husbands’ lives came at their expense. I am continually drawn to them out of a sense of responsibility, or penance, a feeling that someone should look and appreciate what they gave up.
1. I used to be much more at home in the night city. Half my memories of Toronto and Montreal are of quiet night hours; empty streets, traffic lights changing quietly from green to yellow to red in abandoned intersections, the profound quiet of an apartment at three a.m. I lived in those cities from the ages of eighteen through twenty-two. There were very long nights. At eighteen in Toronto I used to stay up all night writing html code. At nineteen I was going out dancing twice a week. At twenty-two in Montreal, I kept very strange hours. My job required me to wake up at five thirty, but when I didn’t have to work the next day I’d sometimes go to sleep at seven in the evening and wake up at two a.m. I would dress carefully, pack up my computer and go to the open-all-night Café Depot at the corner of St. Lawrence and Prince Arthur, where I’d drink tea and stare out the window and write until morning. My characters in my first novel were insomniacs, and I liked watching the progression of night on St. Lawrence Boulevard. The walls in that place are all glass and the street was a theater; at first the club kids in their finery, later wave upon wave of taxis and then the three- and four-a.m. stragglers with bleary eyes and fishnet stockings, clutching slices of pizza and making tired plans; soon afterward the first of the dayworkers, the bakery truck. At other times there were jobs that kept me working until one or two or four in the morning, long summer nights behind martini bars or making lattes or stocking shelves, nervous walks home on empty sidewalks. But now? I’ve moved to the city that never sleeps, but I’d just as soon be in bed by midnight. I glimpse the night city rarely and in passing; I stumble out of the subway in Park Slope at two a.m. because the party went late and it took an hour to get home from uptown Manhattan; I stare out at a deserted Brooklyn through sedan windows on four thirty a.m., en route to LaGuardia long before sunrise, because early-morning flights are the cheapest. I’m no longer a citizen of the night city, but a fascination remains. The desktop image on my laptop is Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks. On the rare nights when I can’t sleep I sometimes stand for a moment at the living room window, looking down at the street four stories below; there are Con Edison trucks and police cars parked outside the 24-hour diner across the street from my apartment at all hours. I’m not naïve enough to really want to go down there at four a.m., but it’s impossible not to notice how peaceful my neighborhood is at that hour, how quiet. 2. There were times in my life when I lived in the night city, but I was only ever passing through. The night city has always felt like a separate territory to me, a place quite removed, with its own culture and rules of interaction. I’ve found convincing depictions of the night city in fiction—Haruki Murakami’s After Dark, for instance—but two years ago I was beginning a novel that I knew would involve at least one nightshift worker, and I needed a somewhat more solid guide to the territory. I bought a copy of Nightshift NYC. Nightshift NYC is the work of the husband-and-wife team of Russell Leigh Sharman and Cheryl Harris Sharman. For a little over a year, circa 2006, they spent their nights in the company of New York City’s night shift workers. They interviewed and observed dozens of workers—over a hundred, by project’s end—at sites all over the city. They spent hours in 24-hour diners and went out on fishing boats out of Brooklyn, lingered in the foul depths of late-night Penn Station and talked to taxi drivers. The result is impressive. Each chapter is organized loosely around a profession or a place; some are focused almost entirely on a single worker, while others follow everyone at a given worksite. If night is a territory, Nightshift NYC functions as both an anthropological guide and a history. The diner across the street from my apartment never closes. Nightshift NYC puts the establishment in context; the first diner in the city was “a horse-drawn ‘night lunch wagon’ operated by the Church Temperance Society in hopes of drawing business away from bars and their ten-cent meals. For thousands of old-world immigrants, mostly young men, the night lunch wagon was a surrogate for home and a moment’s rest. They were so successful they became the charitable beneficiaries of wealthy New Yorkers such as Cornelius Vanderbilt, who endowed a night lunch wagon in Union Square.” The thought of Vanderbilt-sponsored charity diners is fascinating to me, as is the perpetuity of society’s desire to put a stamp of morality over the chaos of the night city. Equally interesting are the lives portrayed in this book; the Upper West Side doormen and diner waitresses, third-shift nurses and nightshift deckhands. There are heartbreaking failed immigrations—an exhausted nighttime cleaner in Penn Station who longs to return to Turkey—and any number of workers who have no intention of staying here; variations on I’ll stay here for a while, I’ll be a part of the machine that keeps the city running through the nights, and when I’ve saved enough money I’ll leave and never come back. “I am very tired,” the undocumented dishwasher in the west side diner tells the authors, “but I want to save a little more money.” I find myself wondering what became of him, in the years since the 2006 interview; did he return to Mexico City that year, as planned? It was his third time living and working in the United States. He said he wasn’t coming back. There are common threads; some work the night shift because it allows them the greatest possible amount of time with their children—it’s possible to come home in time to have breakfast with the kids and get them off to school, sleep for a while, and see them again when they arrive home in the afternoon. Others are in it for the money; the night shifts of certain jobs pay better. For some, the nightshift is a lifestyle, and several workers insist that they prefer to work over the night hours—there’s more autonomy at night, it’s quieter, fewer customers and less traffic, the boss is asleep. “But,” the authors point out, “few chose the nightshift for any of these reasons. For many, it is the only shift available.” Available might mean it’s the only shift they can get in the absence of a working knowledge of the English language; available can also mean that someone has to be there to get the kids to school, and working the night shift is the only way to make that happen. There's an odd coyness that appears every so often, as when a street food vendor is described as spending his shift fending off offers of "um, relationships." There are moments that ring false. Getting anywhere on the subway after midnight in NYC is frankly a nightmare. Trains sit in the station for twenty minutes at a time, with no announcement as to when or if they might start running again. Or trains run in sections, which means being ejected into a sketchy neighborhoods to wait endlessly for shuttle buses in the rain, the heat, the freezing cold. R trains appear inexplicably on F tracks; F trains become C trains running via the A line. But the most startling thing about the MTA’s night chaos, the Sharmans write, “is that no one complains.” Really? No one? We must live on different subway lines. But for its small flaws, Nightshift NYC remains an essential guide to the territory.
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The "Machine" in the title of Tracy Kidder's Pulitzer Prize-winning book from 1982 is a minicomputer, but for anyone reading it now, it might as well be a time machine. The Soul of a New Machine takes the reader back 27 years, but in terms of the technology that is central to the book, it feels like we're going back eons. Kidder's book, once a riveting look into a fast-growing and mysterious industry, now reads as history. Kidder's subject is a team of engineers at a now gone company called Data General (it was bought out in 1999). Under the brash instruction of their leader, Tom West, the engineers set out to design a computer even though the head honchos at Data General have put their support and resources behind another group. West's Eagle group - made up of young, brilliant engineers - comes out on top. Though this book is quite dated now, I enjoyed it for a couple of reasons. Computer technology is so commonplace now that it is a part of our landscape, both essential and taken for granted. It was interesting to look back to a time before we had computers on our desks and in our pockets, when computers were as mysterious and awe inspiring as putting a man on the moon. The book was also compelling as a collection of character studies and a treatise on business theory. Kidder does a good job of putting the reader in the basement of the office building where this computer was born. If you're interested, an excerpt from the book is available.
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