Friday, December 23, 2011

This Blog Will See Your Sidney & Raise You A Kidney — But You'll Have To Go To Xinjiang To Get It!

BoBo Boy (David Brooks) delivered his second installment of links to good long-form essays in today's NY Fishwrap. Enjoy. In the "What Did You Learn Today?" Department, this blogger encountered a pair of previously unknown sites that curate good good writing: The Browser and Longform. In fact, this blogger discovered a new role for himself: curator. If this is (fair & balanced) caretaking, so be it.

PS: See "The Sidney Awards, Part I" here.

[x NY Fishwrap]
The Sidney Awards, Part II
By David Brooks

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Book tours are lonely, yet after spending four months promoting his novel “Freedom,” Jonathan Franzen went to an island 500 miles off the coast of Chile to be alone. He got at least one thing out of it, a profound essay in The New Yorker called “Farther Away,” the winner of another of this year’s Sidney Awards.

Franzen’s theme is solitude. He writes about Robinson Crusoe, the emergence of the novel, the potentially isolating effect of the Internet, and the suicide of his friend, the writer David Foster Wallace.

“He was a lifelong prisoner on the island of himself,” Franzen writes of his friend. “To prove once and for all that he truly didn’t deserve to be loved, it was necessary to betray as hideously as possible those who loved him best, by killing himself at home and making them firsthand witness to his act.”

Wallace emerges as a person who defined the extreme end of the isolation spectrum. Franzen is a bit down the scale, which explains what is best in his writing (his incredible powers of observation) and what is worst (his coolness toward his own characters). Many people with writerly personalities share these traits. You can also find a few of them, oddly, in politics.

Many of the best public-policy essays of the year tackled the interconnected subjects of inequality, wage stagnation and the loss of economic dynamism. If anybody wants a deeper understanding of these issues, I’d recommend a diverse mélange of articles: “The Broken Contract” by George Packer in Foreign Affairs; “The Inequality That Matters” by Tyler Cowen in The American Interest; “The Rise of the New Global Elite” by Chrystia Freeland in The Atlantic; and “Beyond the Welfare State” in National Affairs by Yuval Levin.

Each essay has insights that complicate the familiar partisan story lines. Cowen, for example, notes that income inequality is on the way up while the inequality of personal well-being is on the way down. One hundred years ago, John D. Rockefeller lived a very different life than the average wage earner, who worked six days a week, never took vacations and had no access to the world’s culture. Today, both you and Bill Gates enjoy the Internet, important new pharmaceuticals and good cheap food.

Anybody who is on antidepressants, or knows somebody who is, should read Marcia Angell’s series “The Epidemic of Mental Illness: Why?” from The New York Review of Books. Many of us have been taught that depression arises, in part, from chemical imbalances in the brain. Apparently, there is no evidence to support that.

Many of us thought that antidepressants work. Apparently, there is meager evidence to support that, too. They may work slightly better than placebos, Angell argues, but only under certain circumstances. They may also be permanently altering people’s brains and unintentionally fueling the plague of mental illness by causing episodes of mania, for example. I wouldn’t consider Angell the last word on this, but it’s certainly a viewpoint worth learning about.

Speaking about medicine gone wrong, Ethan Gutmann had a chilling piece in The Weekly Standard called “The Xinjiang Procedure” about organ harvesting in China. Prisoners are executed by firing squads and then, as they are slowly dying, doctors are rushed in to harvest livers and kidneys. Gutmann spoke with doctors compelled to perform this procedure:

“Even as Enver stitched the man back up — not internally, there was no point to that anymore, just so the body might look presentable — he sensed the man was still alive. ‘I am a killer,’ Enver screamed inwardly. He did not dare to look at the man’s face again.”

GQ magazine had a very good year with several fine articles. One of them was “The Movie Set That Ate Itself” by Michael Idov. It is about the movie director Ilya Khrzhanovsky who set out to make a film about Stalinism. He took over a Ukrainian city, amassed a cast of thousands and had them live in his own totalitarian city. They were forbidden to utter words or use technologies that did not exist in 1952. He redid the plumbing pipes so the toilets would sound like toilets from 1952. Actors and technicians had to answer to his every whim.

Hundreds left or were purged from the movie project, but many more were sucked in by the totalitarian mind-set, snitching on confederates, living in fear. Idov ends up denouncing his own photographer, after Khrzhanovsky turns against him.

Every year there are more outstanding essays than I have space to mention, but this year’s selection process has been the hardest. The Internet is everywhere, but this is a golden age of long-form journalism, and I could have chosen 50 pieces as good as the ones above. Click on The Browser, and Arts & Letters Daily for links to more. Tweets are fun, but essays you’ll remember. Ω

[David Brooks is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times and has become a prominent voice of politics in the United States. Brooks graduated from the University of Chicago in 1983 with a degree in history. He served as a reporter and later op-ed editor for The Wall Street Journal, a senior editor at The Weekly Standard from its inception, a contributing editor at Newsweek and The Atlantic Monthly, and a commentator on NPR and "The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer." Brooks has written a book of cultural commentary titled Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There (2000). Brooks also writes articles and makes television appearances as a commentator on various trends in pop culture, such as internet dating. He has been largely responsible for coining the terms "bobo," "red state," and "blue state." His newest book is entitled The Social Animal (2011).]

Copyright © 2011 The New York Times Company

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