Chicago at New York
I jumped across the Hudson last weekend to attend the 10th, and my sixth consecutive, New Yorker Festival. I caught the following six events:
- "Tales out of School: New Yorker Writers on The New Yorker," an evening of storytelling curated by FOBB&Bs The Moth featuring behind-the-scenes anecdotes from staff writers Roger Angell, Judith Thurman, Mark Singer, Ariel Levy, and Adam Gopnik. Entertaining stuff all around and gems aplenty. Longtime (and apparently last-time) Moth host and New Yorker humorist Andy Borowitz moderated and cracked wise.
- A lecture by Malcolm Gladwell advertised as "The Curious Case of Michael Vick." But it wasn't Bad Newz Kennels, it was bad news for the audience. Gladwell opened by announcing that he would in fact not be talking about Michael Vick, and instead orated for over an hour on the contrasting drinking habits of the Bolivian Camba and New Haven's Italian-Americans in the 1950s. Who cared? Not me. I love Mr. Gladwell and will follow him almost anywhere, but he lost me with this one. It was the fifth time I've seen him at the New Yorker Festival and the first time I didn't enjoy it. Such point as he did make -- that alcohol consumption can either bind a community together through social ritual or become an epidemic monster through binge drinking -- seemed self-evident. And it's not that I'm not a big drinker. I'm not a homicidal cop but I enjoyed his discussion a few years ago about Blink and the Diallo case; I'm not a record producer but I loved his talk about software that predicts pop music hits; I'm not an Ivy Leaguer but I ate up his tongue-in-cheek debate with Adam Gopnik over whether the Ivy League should be abolished. This one just didn't work. A Festival friend of mine felt the same way. After trying for over a half hour to get into it I gave up, broke out my subway map and plotted my route to my next event. At least there was a nice long Q&A session, but most of it had to do with his lecture.
- "New Math," a panel discussion featuring baseball guru Bill James, FiveThirtyEight.com creator Nate Silver, Columbia University economist and Gang Leader for a Day author Sudhir Venkatesh, and University of Missouri statistics professor Nancy Flournoy. Moderator Ben McGrath, whose work I love in the magazine, was quietly hilarious and did a fine job. The discussion was surprisingly funny, occasionally thought-provoking, cordially informative and well worth attending.
- "The Political Scene," a panel discussion at which political reporters Hendrik Hertzberg, Jane Mayer, and Ryan Lizza and executive editor Dorothy Wickenden broke down President Obama's first year. This event suffered by comparison to last year's version. At the 2008 Festival, which took place a few weeks prior to Election Day and centered largely around politics, George Packer joined Mr. Hertzberg, Mr. Lizza and Ms. Wickenden for a spirited discussion of the campaign trail and the forthcoming general election. It was lively conversation and expert analysis from those who knew best. This year's model, by contrast, was just OK. Too much dry policy talk for my taste. There was a lot of Afghanistan, a lot of terrorism, a lot of torture, some health care, and a little Obama. But they did cover the issues; I guess we just live in serious times.
- "Master Class: Cartooning" with cartoon editor Bob Mankoff. I'm no cartoonist, much less one worthy of attending a master class, but I was all over the chance to hear an exemplar talk shop. Mankoff is not just the New Yorker's cartoon editor but one of the best cartoonists in the magazine. Those who suspect self-nepotism should know that of his over 900 New Yorker cartoons, many more of them appeared before he was named cartoon editor than since. For that matter, his cartoons are excellent, so who cares? Having seen Bob speak a few times before, I knew him also to be hilarious in person. He did not disappoint, drawing loud laughs from the capacity crowd in the Condé Nast Auditorium.
- "Master Class: Copy Editing" with Ann Goldstein, Mary Norris and Elizabeth Pearson-Griffiths, three New Yorker copy editors with nearly a century of experience among them. To the collected authors, editors, reporters, bloggers, English majors, and, yes, New Yorker staff writers in the room, it was pure catnip. Learning from some of the best in the business how they edit copy at the highest level of the publishing industry was a privilege and a joy. On the macro level, they took us through the Byzantine layers of the editing process, still governed by a superannuated, typewritten flowchart. As for the micro, they rattled off examples of New Yorker style, cited umpteen entries from its 2400-entry word list and invited us collectively to take the editing quiz that all prospective new hires must tackle. Undaunted, the audience passed with flying colors.
New York at Chicago
I'm back in Chicago this week and a New Yorker I once met seems to have followed me from the Big Apple. He's a banjo player called Steve Martin. You might also know him from such other projects as being one of the ten funniest people alive.
But right now it's all about the banjo. Steve has a new bluegrass record out called "The Crow" and he's been everywhere promoting like crazy. Actually, the friend I stayed with in New York knows Steve pretty well. She just caught his show last week at Carnegie Hall, loved every note, and hung out backstage afterward. Another friend tells me he also tore it up at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass in San Francisco.
This week, though, it's Steve Martin live in Chicago for "An Evening of Bluegrass and Banjo," this Thursday night at the Cadillac Palace Theatre. More info and a ticket link in my Flavorpill preview here.