In the past, this blog has perused the New York Times for insights on how to be cool. Today, we turn to a more weighty topic. While coolness is of abiding interest to lifestyle journalists, many of the luminaries profiled in the Times‘ pages transcend mere hipness; they are consummate examples of human perfection, without flaws either inside or out. How can we emulate them? Let’s find out.
With summer winding down, time is running out to plan your vacation. The New York Times travel section can help. Or it could, if you ever looked at it. You might never have perused the pages of this section, even if you’ve been a subscriber for years. With its hundreds of thousands of words a day, even dedicated readers don’t have time to explore the obscurer corners of the publication. And after all, this is a newspaper that can turn shopping for a stool into an excruciating exercise in status-symbol posturing. One might naturally be reluctant to find out just how snobbish they can get when the subject is Thai yoga retreats or fine dining in Paris.
The Travel section does offer some helpful, informative pieces, written from a neutral perspective and designed to help the typical traveler find her way. But this format is difficult for a jaded journalist to pull off, lacking as it does in personality or narrative interest. And the periodical format’s hunger for novelty makes it inevitable that some scribes would package their experiences as news. Furthermore, world-weary professional travellers can sometimes lose touch with the mindset of overworked provincials. Thus the matter-of-fact articles are often overwhelmed by those that try to juice up their subject with trend-piece glamour, or drag it down with angsty moaning and luxury-problem griping. So, in this, the first in a (very occasional) series on the lesser-read sections of the Times, we’ll explore the most common Travel pitfalls to watch out for.
Here’s a little Cosmo-style quiz. Instead of testing your Penis Perspicacity, you’re finding out whether you have what it takes to live the New York Times Style section lifestyle! Just think about the question, formulate your answer, then read on to find your score.
You look in the mirror, and notice your skin isn’t looking very radiant. You want to look younger, eliminate wrinkles and clogged pores, and have softer, more supple skin than ever. What do you do?
“The problem is it’s… I can’t think of a word to describe it. It’s… well, bizarre doesn’t even come close. Senseless doesn’t get close. I can’t identify a reason why it was written. I can’t figure out what inspired Brooks to write it, well, other than he had to write something. I don’t know who he expected to read it and comprehend it. I don’t even know how he expected the editors at the New York Times to actually publish it…. There is nothing that broaches sanity that explains this piece. There is literally no reason for it. The who, why, when, where, what, there isn’t any of that in it. The relevance to anything, it’s not.”
— Description of a David Brooks column by… Rush Limbaugh?!
Rush was describing one of Brooks’s occasional forays into film criticism (“The Flock Comedies“). But his critiques could apply equally to any Brooks column. Truly, as he says, there is nothing that broaches sanity that explains anything in his oeuvre, there’s no reason for it, and the relevance to anything, it’s not. These comments find Limbaugh in a strangely reasonable mode, conveying the reaction of a sane, intelligent reader on encountering a tissue of banality. In oxycontin, veritas.
But Rush’s opiate-addled ramblings, while true, aren’t specific enough. There are many flavors of inane claptrap, many ways to broach sanity and reduce people to indignant sentence fragments. In his prolific career, Brooks has discovered them all. Below, I provide a taxonomy.
Love has always proved a difficult subject for NYT writers to tackle. Having existed for over 50,000 years, long before the beginning of recorded human history, it cannot be convincingly described as a “trend.” It could even be said defy trends, outlasting all epochs, regimes, reigns, administrations, and empires. It’s a human universal! That is all very inspiring, but poses difficulties for the Styles scribes, who have a paradigm that — while perfectly serviceable when men’s eyebrow grooming appointments go up 8 percent between 2009 and 2010, or some such — lacks explanatory power when dealing with with time frames in the tens of thousands of years.
Are trend pieces the only option? No. If you want to explain the vagaries of affection to Styles readers, you could turn to another perennial format, the one that I call “article about a press release.” Specifically, an article about a press release about a scientific study, a study that is about something of interest to Styles readers. Creating an AAAPR(AASS) is easy, because all you have to do is read the one-age press release, paraphrase what it says, and add in some Jersey Shore references. You don’t have to weigh conflicting opinions and reach an independent conclusion, or read a bunch of relevant scientific work in the field, or even read the one scientific work that the article is about. Just summarize the press release, and bam, you’re a Science Reporter, using all kinds of cool words like “hypothesize” and “control group.” Science is great!