In the current issue of The New York Review of Books, the novelist Nicholson Baker offers a charming encomium to Wikipedia. Baker knows whereof he speaks – he reveals that he’s been a prolific Wikipedia contributor. Thanks to the miracle of modern technology, we at The Millions were able to chase down an archive of all of Baker’s Wikipedia activity, and we humbly submit that it’s a fascinating window into one writer’s mind: Duck Man, hydraulic fluid, the “Sankebetsu brown bear incident”…. Perhaps equally impressive is that Baker has resisted the temptation to tinker with the Wikipedia entry about himself.
Chicago is called “The Windy City” not because of our winds (which are present, but not markedly above average), but because of our citizens’ historical propensity to go on about themselves. The nickname took root during a late 19th-century rivalry with Cincinnati. Both cities had a meatpacking industry and baseball, and this was enough to stir up a war of words. We fought, bafflingly, over rights to the nickname “Porkopolis,” and our dueling baseball teams, the Red Stockings and the White Stockings. The Cincinnati sports writers, tired of our braggadocio, made “windy city” stick. And “The Second City” was not coined by A.J. Liebling in his outwardly snotty book about Chicago’s inferiority to New York. We earned that one in the 19th century as well, when the city burned to the ground and we built an entirely new city — the second city — in its place. When even our monikers are misunderstood, Chicago, demonstrably, has reputation issues. We’re outspoken and resourceful, and everyone thinks we’re just losers getting blown about! Being a proud Chicagoan, then, can feel like a defensive position. Or, more optimistically, that all of our cultural treasures are a secret. Enter The Chicagoan, a new outfit whose mission is to “document the arts, culture, innovators and history of Chicago and the greater Midwest through long-form storytelling.” The original Chicagoan was a weekly magazine, modeled on The New Yorker, published from 1926 to 1935. It was hit or miss, quality-wise, and went unremembered until University of Chicago professor Neil Harris discovered its archive in the library, and then edited the collection (The Chicagoan: A Lost Magazine of the Jazz Age) that brought it all to our attention. Now JC Gabel, editor of the much more recently defunct Stop Smiling magazine, has relaunched the brand with The Chicagoan Issue 1, a 200 page limited-edition glossy number that’s heavy on design. The Chicagoan as an organization also has digital editions, podcasts, and public events on its agenda, and Issue 1 acts as drum major for this cultural parade. Its greatest success would be to spotlight Chicago’s creatives in a way that excites the hometown crowd, intrigues the visitors, and leaves both eager to see more. Seen as a whole, I believe The Chicagoan has succeeded. In an effort to provide a balanced view of our city, the ten Chicago-focused features include seven about cultural innovators and three about crime. One feels a little jolt going back and forth between the two but, in a disheartening way, this may be quite an accurate reflection. The profiles are all proud and glowing (Chicago! We’ve got this great chef, and an amazing architect, and these cool music guys, and really good coffee!). The crime pieces, if it needs to be said, are more nuanced and gritty. Alex Kotlowitz, whose compassionate, participatory brand of journalism has focused on violence in Chicago for over a decade, is reliably worth looking in on. Here he is interviewed, along with filmmaker Steve James, about the “violence interrupters” they recently documented in The Interrupters. Chicago’s beat cop laureate Martin Preib, author of The Wagon, contributes a piece on the crime and confession that stay with him. I don’t want to sound flippant, but it’s nice to have these complicated, antireductive pieces in among the laudations. They stay with you much longer. The literary supplement includes the reliably great Joe Meno and a thinker on David Foster Wallace (the inclusion of which feels predictable but also might be the law? At least it’s out of their system). The last section, comprised of “dispatches from the Midwest,” is small but thoughtful. The real gem of the issue, justifying high hopes for The Chicagoan’s future, is the marquee piece on the history of Siskel & Ebert. The 47-page oral history combines interviews with their coworkers, bosses, friends, and rivals to tell the story of two talented men who sat at the heart of American film criticism for decades. Hubris, competition, ambition, luck, friendship, cruelty, and tragedy make the history of a syndicated talk show read like Greek drama. If Gabel et al. continue to coax such compelling stories out of our city’s history, then they have nothing to fear save the demise of publishing. Happily there is great camaraderie in being underrated, and Chicago has responded well to its glossy new champion. Sold only at independent stores throughout the city, and restocked in small numbers, getting your hands on the issue became the coup du jour for hipsters and literati alike. Remember early This American Life, before it started to always be about the economy? That’s what this could be — appreciative of the sincere efforts of interesting people, and generous in presenting them. Take that, Cincinnati.
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Hillary Clinton may have bested Barack Obama at the voting box in New Hampshire, but Obama remains a big winner at bookstores, according to a recent report:According to Nielsen BookScan, which tracks about 70 per cent of industry sales, [Clinton's] Living History averaged around 1,000 sales a week in December and early January, compared with more than 7,000 a week for [Obama's] Audacity of Hope and more than 2,000 for Dreams From My Father.Elsewhere, it turns out that recently assassinated former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto submitted her memoir to HarperCollins just days before her death. As the world watches Pakistan, the publisher is rushing to get the book out, according to Reuters:"No one could have known that these would be Benazir Bhutto's final words, and somehow that makes them carry even more weight, especially at a time like this," said Tim Duggan, the editor at HarperCollins who acquired the rights to the book.
Today's Elliot Spitzer scandal sent me back to the New Yorker archives, to revisit Nick Paumgarten's excellent profile, from December 10. This time around, I was struck less by the "what you see is what you get" thesis of some Spitzer intimates, than by this proposition, from an unnamed source: "Spitzer lunges. He seems not to be a person of strategy. He slipped on a banana peel, or six, and once down has thrashed around." It remains to be seen if, amid the thrashing, his newfound talent for "extracting oneself from an intractable position" holds up.
Three and a half years ago in some brief comments on Michael Lewis' seminal memoir of Wall Street in the 1980s, Liar's Poker, I noted,While the period that Lewis chronicles is interesting in its own right, its impact is somewhat diminished by the many corporate scandals and Wall Street improprieties that have occurred since the book was first published. Against this backdrop, Liar's Poker is no longer an exceptional story that defined an era, it is merely another moment in the cycle of Wall Street corruption and ensuing retribution that continues today.In a remarkable piece for Portfolio magazine this week, Lewis revisits Liar's Poker amid the wreckage of Wall Street and readily admits that the book now seems "quaint," tragically so:I thought I was writing a period piece about the 1980s in America. Not for a moment did I suspect that the financial 1980s would last two full decades longer or that the difference in degree between Wall Street and ordinary life would swell into a difference in kind. I expected readers of the future to be outraged that back in 1986, the C.E.O. of Salomon Brothers, John Gutfreund, was paid $3.1 million; I expected them to gape in horror when I reported that one of our traders, Howie Rubin, had moved to Merrill Lynch, where he lost $250 million; I assumed they'd be shocked to learn that a Wall Street C.E.O. had only the vaguest idea of the risks his traders were running. What I didn't expect was that any future reader would look on my experience and say, "How quaint."And:In the two decades since then, I had been waiting for the end of Wall Street. The outrageous bonuses, the slender returns to shareholders, the never-ending scandals, the bursting of the internet bubble, the crisis following the collapse of Long-Term Capital Management: Over and over again, the big Wall Street investment banks would be, in some narrow way, discredited. Yet they just kept on growing, along with the sums of money that they doled out to 26-year-olds to perform tasks of no obvious social utility. The rebellion by American youth against the money culture never happened. Why bother to overturn your parents' world when you can buy it, slice it up into tranches, and sell off the pieces?In the long piece, Lewis posits, convincingly, that the obit for Wall Street that he wrote more than twenty years prematurely is finally relevant, though rendered absurd by the cataclysmic collapse.The essay is a must read. In it he profiles a few who will, when the dust eventually settles, be known as - not the heroes; there are no heroes - the ones who saw it coming. And at the end he sits down with the legendary Gutfreund, whose career Liar's Poker ruined, for the first time since Lewis left Solomon Brothers back in the 1980s.Kottke also highlighted the Lewis article today and he points out that this essay is likely material (along with several others Kottke points to) for a forthcoming book that Lewis intends to write about the death of Wall Street as we knew it. There's little doubt that this new book will be the obit that Liar's Poker was meant to be.
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Reuters' "Oddly Enough" column ventures this week into the realm of literary history and intrigue: The mystery of Schiller's skull. When he died of tuberculosis in his forties, Friedrich Schiller, the eighteenth-century German Romantic poet, playwright, and philosopher, was buried in a mass grave. Several decades later, the mass grave was dug up and Schiller’s skull identified by comparison with his death mask and its size, and placed in a more distinguished tomb in the city of Weimar. In 1911, the mass grave was turned up again and another skull found that was claimed to be the real memento mori. This second skull was also placed in Schiller's tomb.Now, DNA researchers attempting to tell the true skull from the false by comparison with DNA samples taken from Schiller’s relatives, have discovered that neither is a match.In one of Lucian of Samosata's second century Dialogues of the Dead, Diogenes tells Pollux that in death, "man and man are as like as two peas... when it comes to bare skull and no beauty."So it would seem.
The Paris Review, long recognizable for its fat, little, bookish profile, has been redesigned under the watch of new editor Philip Gourevitch. Also gone is the practice of emblazoning the cover with an abstruse piece of art (as opposed to, say, the New Yorker) and nothing else. "Maybe no one thought it before Mr. Plimpton died, but the venerable old magazine did need an update." says Bud, who's got a full accounting of the venerable literary magazine's new look (and contents).