Art, Entertainment, and the Occasional Cartoon for the Educated Middle Class

 •  Commentary.

A woman wearing a bizarre gold and black dress stares out at you from the busy page. Her head carpeted in a fluorescent orange wig, she sits silently, looking very serious. The panel announces, “Yayoi Kusama at the Whitney Museum of American Art.” Turn the page and you’ll see full-size ads for Olay wrinkle smoothing cream and a Volkswagen SUV. Yes, it’s another New Yorker.

Skim through the next few pages and you’ll find discussion of everything from Soul Train, the funky 70’s TV show with lined up dancers strutting to the beat, to a profile of a Pakistani ruler, to fiction about an elephant that paints. Stray single-panel cartoons break up the monotony of text with somewhat difficult to understand satire: a scene of two men eating bagels in a subway car, with a prim and proper lady wearing a Victorian-era bustle and a stern look standing behind them, about to smack them for their infraction. The caption reads, “Look out! It’s the subway marm!”

While New Yorker authors present ideas from all imaginable topics, they seem to have a common approach in their start in medias res. The writers don’t have time to introduce their topics; instead they get to the juicy ideas without paragraphs of preface. It seems like the reader of the New Yorker has a similar desire: he or she wants well-written news, opinion, fiction and culture, but in a prompt style without needless introduction.

Despite this style, this is a magazine of contradictions. While, on one hand, it assumes its reader share a certain background—namely, a liberal arts, upper-middle class education—the fundamental ideas behind the articles are actually pretty understandable to any high school student. The New Yorker presents a strong opinion, but this shouldn’t hide the fact that the articles are dressed-up, accessible arguments that blend entertainment with a more serious take on the world of arts and culture, business and politics.

Most would not normally compare the Cheesecake Factory to America’s healthcare system. In his article “Big Med,” Atul Gawande uses this unconventional metaphor to bring the reader’s attention to how healthcare should modernize in order to be more efficient. It turns out that a restaurant with a client base of over eighty million ought to make a pretty good model of large-scale industrialization and an example for hospital administration. After observing their technique, Gawande writes that the kitchen is “laid out like a manufacturing facility,” with chefs who can each make ten different dishes in ten minutes. As Gawande postulates, the reason chain restaurants are so efficient is that “size is the key. It gives them buying power, lets them centralize common functions, and allows them to adopt and diffuse innovations faster.” But why do I still have to wait in line for two hours to get a penicillin prescription for my strep throat?

While intriguing, Gawande does note that industrializing healthcare presents complications like liability, finances, and equipment. Here you have a well-written argument with an interesting thesis—healthcare needs to take direction from extremely modern mass customer service technology—presented using a unique metaphor that is unnecessary but helps to get people’s attention, unlike some dry C-SPAN recording of Congress debating Obamacare.

However, not all of The New Yorker articles have such strong theses. Malcom Gladwell starts his article “Slackers” comparing his past experience as a mediocre high school runner with the remarkable story of Alberto Salazar, who is physically not a naturally gifted runner, but who accomplished great things because he pushed himself to work harder in the face of incredible pain. Gladwell uses this story and other anecdotes from economics and D.C. restaurant competition to make the case “hard work is the key to success.” But, when you get down to it, does this almost cliché message really make for such an interesting thesis? It is an awe-inspiring story, but it basically confirms what we already know: hard work makes you at least a little more likely to achieve your dreams.

Normally, dentists don’t set up fake marathons in order to place first, just to say they did. But in another issue, Mark Singer investigates a Michigan dentist and part-time marathoner who somehow always ends up at the front of the race without passing anyone or being photographed. It is an intriguing story without a clear purpose other than to find out how this trickster is accomplishing his running feats.

Singer shares intriguing insider details of the story, like pictures that show Kip Litton wearing different clothes between the start and finish. The reporter uses the internet and a rare interview with Litton to pull the reader closer to the story. Ultimately, Singer ends with a piece of simple advice: “every runner ultimately competes against himself or herself.” Anyone could have told you that!

So, in a nutshell, The New Yorker succeeds in creating a healthy blend of everything I want to read about, kind of like a fruit shake: there’s a pleasant tang of culture before you taste the basic facts, no matter how dressed up they are. Despite not being in its targeted audience, I enjoyed what I could manage to get out of it.