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The Publisher's Desk

The Publisher's Desk

On glory days.


I can’t remember how long ago it was that I let my subscription to the New Yorker lapse, but it was years at least. At the time I was thinking of space; I was shortly to move house and I had stacks of weekly magazines that were delivered faster than I could acknowledge them, but also, I hadn’t found in its pages the magazine that its reputation suggested ought to be there. (For Rachel Hoover’s lament for another kind of reputational misrepresentation, see page 64).

An institution’s “glory days” are always an ambivalent topic: they can both make and break it in the present. A magazine that has a wonderful history to be drawn up and relished from the well of fifty-odd years may not deliver on that greatness week in and week out; you love what you have learned about what it was, and believe it still could be, but you can plainly see that it isn’t that, at least not now, or not all the time. (James Bond had this view of his own country’s decline; see Eduard Habsburg’s appreciation, page 61.)

These sorts of reflections become unavoidable in major cities, especially those whose urban centers are a few centuries old but are surrounded by and interspersed with more recent constructions whose main inspirations are typically either raw utility, hubris, or self-loathing. (See Matthew Milliner’s tribute to the older, humbler side of Chicago, page 6.)

Of course the reverse can also be true: in time what is undistinguished, unlikeable or even bad can change, or produce things that we admire. Pretty flowers grow in piles of rotting compost; scabs fall off and reveal new healthy skin beneath; so too can we find ourselves surprised as an old failed institution dies and gives way to (or is given by new people) new life. (For Sasha A. Palmer’s experience with the dying faith of communism and her new birth of faith in Christ, see page 18.) So often human endeavors make more sense when measured not in years but in the lifetimes of those people who were most important to them.

Take the old houses of Europe for example: to measure their history in centuries is to lose the personal thread that truly connects one year to another, this generation to the next. Their history is not what Hume believed he saw in the East-Anglian monarchy, a mere “bead-roll of barbarous names” who “successively murdered, expelled, or inherited from each other, and obscurely filled the throne”; its history, arts, culture, and faith cannot be separated from the personalities who inherited, added to, destroyed, improved upon, or squandered their culture. (For a consideration of its heritage, see David Bentley Hart’s review of a recent book on Europe, page 49.)

Though sometimes those personalities do decide to destroy what they have, as they did in the two Byzantine Iconoclasms, or in Florence under Savonarola at their bonfire of the vanities, or in England during the Reformation. In such cases we can lament the philistinism of the fanatics. But more often those people simply forget, or lose track. (For Sam Kriss’s interpretation of the Epic of Gilgamesh and its missing lines, page 43.) Their memory is lost to us because of caprice and human error. What could remind us more of ourselves than that?

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