It's resolution time. The new year has come and the booze-fiends are taking some time off, the philanderers are planning quality family time and deleting guilty phone numbers, we're joining gyms, and people are generally cleaning up their lives for a couple weeks before the sheer weight of winter misery presses them to a happy reunion with their old vices.
But while we're in a cleaning frame of mind, there are a specific set of you (numbering just over a million according to the latest numbers) who are about to throw away that stack of old New Yorker magazines. Let's face it, we get behind and we think we'll catch up. And it doesn't really happen.
But here's a service I can provide. Due to a preposterous overabundance of free time and the clipping habits of your grandmother, I actually read every issue cover to cover and then cut out my favorite bits. I don't know why I do this. Presumably with the intention of making some vast collage at the year's end. But my mania is your boon: I've spent the past week re-reading my clippings and have listed my highly-subjective highlights below. Some of the pieces are now archived, which means you need a subscription to the New Yorker, or a hard copy of the magazine itself to read them. Many are not though. So there's that.
A word on the choices: I've split them into fiction and non-fiction. The fiction is, obviously, based purely on the writing and story, so I didn't bother to summarize the choices. Either you like the same or don't. Read the first one and decide. What else would it be based on?
I put synopses for the non-fiction. Without further ado:
1. The Cost Conundrum, June 1st, 2009, by Atul Gawande: David Brooks listed this article as perhaps the most-influential magazine piece this year and it's not hard to see why. Gawande gives a clear picture of why medical costs are rising and why it's so hard to stop them.
2. Rational Irrationality, October 5th, 2009 by John Cassidy: An essay that points out that some of the most basic assumptions of economics are fundamentally preposterous. Very worth reading.
3. Either/Or, November 30th, 2009 by Ariel Levy: The piece follows the controversy surrounding the gender of the runner Caster Semenya. Is she a he and does it matter? If you want to reinforce in your mind how utterly unfair anti-gay marriage initiatives are, then read this piece. Gender, at least in many cases, turns out to be scientifically undefinable thing.
4. Chinese Barbizon, October 26th, 2009 by Peter Hessler: Hessler follows a Chinese art school where students produce, en masse, paintings for the western market. It's about as perfect an example of how globalization works as you could ever hope to come by and brilliantly written. The piece is worth reading in full.
5. Don't Shoot, June 22, 2009, by John Seabrook: David Kennedy, a professor of criminal anthropology at John Jay University in New York, told the Cincinnati police department he could cut their gang-related murder rate in half. They followed his advice and more-or-less succeeded.
6. The Sixth Extinction, May 25th, 2009, by Elizabeth Kolbert: At least once a year it is your duty as a person to remind yourself how quickly we are destroying the planet. This is among the most brutal and affecting articles that I read this year in that regard. We're killing everything. But this one isn't about global warming.
7. Death of Kings, May 18th, 2009, by Nick Paumgarten: Paumgarten interviews dozens of Wall Street big wigs with wildly differing opinions about what caused the meltdown and how we could have stopped it.
8. Brain Gain, April 27th, 2009 by Margaret Talbot: Remember all those kids back in college who did better than you because they stayed home and worked hard while you were busy seeing how long you could hold a keg stand? Those days are over... sort of. Now the kids using drugs are getting ahead. Talbot follows the use of 'neuro-enhancers' - drugs like Adderall and Provigil - that allow more intense concentration and give users a potential edge in concentration-based tasks.
9. Brain Games, May 11th, 2009, by John Colapinto: A profile of Dr. Vilayanur S. Ramachandran, the inventor of the 'mirror-treatment' for phantom limb patients (featured recently in an episode of House). If you care about how your brain works, read this.
10. What's the Recipe, November 23rd, 2009 by Adam Gopnik: Cookbooks and why we love them. A quick, poetic read for people who find themselves reading recipes they will never perfect.
11. Cocksure, July 27th, 2009, by Malcolm Gladwell: Gladwell points out that part of the reason Wall Street keeps crashing is that there is a psychological incentive for them to do so. Confident people are more successful, so naysayers - including the ones you should listen to - get shoved aside in the aggressive culture of the street.
12. Doing it, January 5th, 2009 by Ariel Levy: For those of us raised more-recently than the seventies, this is a fun little primer on what we missed. Levy reviews a re-release of the Joy of Sex noting, among other things, that in the original "The woman depicted in [the] drawings is lovely, and, even nearly forty years later, quite chic. Her gentleman friend, however, looks like a werewolf with a hangover." It's a quick, fun read.
A Tiny Feast, April 20, 2009, by Chris Adrian
Ziggurat, June 29th, 2009, by Stephen O'Connor
Good Neighbors, June 8 & 15, by Jonathan Franzen
Attention, People of Earth, September 21, 2009 by Paul Simms
War Dances, August 10 & 17, by Sherman Alexie
Victory Lap, October 5th, 2009, by George Saunders
The Five Wounds, July 27th, by Kirstin Valdez Quade
The Slows, May 4, 2009, by Gail Hareven
So there they are, the results of a year of reading and scissors. Read them during the next couple weeks, while you are still resolving to read more. Then, when Wife Swap starts again, you can pour yourself a stiff drink and watch it with your mistress, while you let that gym membership lapse. Happy New Year.
Follow Nicholas Brown on Twitter: www.twitter.com/nicktbrown