The New Yorker

When the conversation turns to anti-américanisme primaire, as it will every once in a while in France, the first argument I use if I intend to display a contrary argument is the New Yorker. Indeed, this magazine is so much above the level of the available French weeklies that (to use a cliché), it’s not even funny. Not only is the content much better — more art, more poetry, more humor, more fiction, less French politics –, but the difference is even stronger from the purely visual point of view (typography, art, design: no need to be able to read French or English to see which editors/writers/readers have better taste). This is especially shameful, considering that the French penchant for style over substance would seem to guarantee that we would (at least) do much better in this respect. However, it is not for any of the French magazines that J.J. Sempé draws covers, but for The New Yorker. (Sempé is known in France in particular for inventing the second most important fictional Nicolas in history).

I think I first read about The New Yorker in the introduction to a French translation of Woody Allen’s short humor pieces for the magazine (if you’ve never read any of them, I suggest googling for “Gossage Vardebedian”), in which (the introduction) it was identified as “the most snobbish magazine in the world”, which immediately piqued my curiosity. However, I think I read an issue for the first time when I went for a month to the US to work with Henryk Iwaniec in 1992. Then in late 1993, I decided to start subscribing from France. At that time, issues arrived there about one month after publication, so that reading the jazz programme at the Café Carlyle, for instance, was a somewhat quixotic thing to do, but most of the articles were of lasting enough interest that this delay was not much a problem.

My interest for this magazine has been considered somewhat obsessive at times. It is not true that I brought my fledgling (three years old) collection to the US when I went there for Graduate School, but I must admit that I did ship back to France all issues accumulated during that period (and the resulting post-doc), and then had them also sent to Switzerland, together with the issues of the last eight years or so (they are now in storage somewhere in Zürich).

Frankly, my justification for this accumulation was not quite convincing: it is not really useful to have physical issues of The New Yorker somewhere in the basement in a random order, since (until recently) it did not really help to remember vaguely that, say, there was a hilarious story about a mathematics class by some Irish author sometime during the first (or was it second?) Clinton administration — the time to locate it would still be discouraging to consider. Moreover, I couldn’t help feeling terribly jealous of older subscribers who could reach (if they knew where they were located) for issues containing stories by I.B. Singer, for instance, and read them whenever they wanted.

In principle, this two problems were solved a few years ago when The New Yorker published a set of eight DVD’s containing all issues of the magazine (until that date, of course; it has been updated regularly). I bought it immediately, but the fact that the DVD’s were encrypted, and the reader program did not work under Linux was something of a problem. Because we had a Mac in the house, it was still theoretically possible to take advantage of the archive, but in practice it was very inconvenient (except for the fact that the search database was a standard SQLite database, and could thus very well be queried from my Linux computers; so I could say very quickly when the Gossage-Vardebedian papers were published — January 22, 1966 –, but actually reading it involved complicated manipulations and printing to PDF from a very slow Mac whose DVD reader was broken, etc.)

But, at last, this is old history: just recently, The New Yorker started making available both a digital edition (which is convenient, but not so important for me), and the complete archive online, available more or less as in the DVD set, as exact reproductions of the actual magazine (so even the ads, etc, are exactly as in the printed edition, which is quite wonderful actually). Better yet: both services are available free to subscribers.

[Note: I am aware that many older subscribers believe the magazine went downhill starting about 1990; but I can’t really be held responsible for not reading it before, and (1) now I can; (2) it is still much better than the French weeklies…]

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I am a professor of mathematics at ETH Zürich since 2008.

3 thoughts on “The New Yorker”

  1. Yeah, that math class story was great! I read it in a hostel somewhere in New Mexico. The copy I read belonged to this really interesting drifter character who knew one of Freeman Dyson’s sons and was fascinated that I was a mathematician.

  2. I started reading the New Yorker in graduate school, first hand-me down issues from faculty at Urbana, Illinois,
    and then Bruce Reznick gave me & my wife a gift subscription. We have been reading it for almost thirty years now. It is still very rewarding, and I now regularly give out a couple of gift subscriptions myself.

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