2.06.2013

Riff






A couple of Sundays ago.

 :: :: ::

It has been nearly two years since the redesign of The New York Times Magazine, but I still think of the current incarnation as "new." My favorite part, the page that I flip first to each week, is the critics' column, Riff. The column debuted in March of 2011 with Sam Anderson's essay on the art and (for him, near obsessive) practice of marginalia. It's sharp, thoughtful, funny, the perfect inaugural piece for a column serving up first-rate criticism that's relevant to the digital age. (See also the accompanying images of Anderson's marginalia from 2011 and 2012.) I hope you'll read the entire essay - it's wonderful. Here are some excerpts:
Today I rarely read anything - book, magazine, newspaper - without a writing instrument in hand. Books have become my journals, my critical notebooks, my creative outlets. Writing in them is the closest I come to regular meditation...
According to the marginalia scholar H. J. Jackson, the golden age of marginalia lasted from roughly 1700 to 1820. The practice, back then, was surprisingly social - people would mark up books for one another as gifts, or give pointedly annotated novels to potential lovers. Old-school marginalia was - to put it into contemporary cultural terms - a kind of slow-motion, long-form Twitter, or a statusless, meaning-soaked Facebook, or an analog, object-based G-chat...
Marginalia - with its social thrill of shared immersion - is what the culture is moving toward, not away from. We are living increasingly in a culture of response. Twitter is basically electronic marginalia on everything in the world: jokes, sports, revolutions...
I've long been frustrated with the "distance" between criticism and reading itself. Most critical energy is expended in big-picture work - situating texts in history, talking about broad themes - all of which is useful but hardly touches the excitement of actual reading, a process of discovery that happens in time, moment by moment, line by line. What I really want is someone rolling around in the text. I want noticing. I want, in short, marginalia, everywhere, all the time. Suddenly that seems deliriously possible.
I love the energy of this essay. I love how gracefully the author pivots from the theoretical to the applied, how the writing is both intellectually rigorous and deeply personal. I can say the same things about the majority of the Riff columns (which almost, almost, makes up for that maddening One-Page and the departure of Virginia Heffernan), and I often find myself going back to some of my favorites. I want to list them here so that I have them all in one place, and because I think you'll enjoy them, too.

:: Steve Almond on the effective narrator. 

:: Sam Anderson again on information overload.

:: And again on the "meta-memoir" by Luca Spaghetti, a character in Elizabeth Gilbert's Eat, Pray, Love. (A piece that, while quite funny, includes some serious and important observations about memoir that I still think about all the time.)

:: Hugo Lindgren, the editor of The New York Times Magazine, on his creative process. You'll forgive the nerd in me for pointing out a probable error: Mr. Lindgren attributes the wise words "Be wrong as fast as you can," to Pixar founder John Lasseter but, according to Tad Friend's 2011 New Yorker article (an incredibly inspiring read, by the way), these are actually Andrew Stanton's words. I know this because when I was getting bogged down in my book proposal, and now when I'm having a slow writing day, I return to this paragraph from the piece:
Stanton's precepts are often invoked at the studio, particularly "Be wrong fast" or "Fail early." He explains, "It's like every movie is a kid, and no kid avoids puberty. Just dive through it - get that outline that should take three months done in one, so you get the inevitable bad stuff out of the way and have more time to plus the good stuff."
(How's that to light a fire under you?)

Anyway, thanks for letting me deposit all of this here today. I'm happy to get it all down. I don't have a recipe for you at the moment, but I will tell you that we've been eating loads of this soup lately, with no plans to slow down. (Except for Mia, who's not so into soups these days. She'd rather chew.)