Cultural Commodities: Books From The New Yorker
Since 1925, The New Yorker has celebrated the art of books and book reading for the delight of bibliophiles. Some covers of the magazine display gorgeous and inspiring visuals which pay homage to the written word and the reader’s odyssey. From its beginning to present, The New Yorker praises the book as a cultural purveyor of intriguing narratives that can spark the subjective interests of the reading public. Does reading allow us to discover a deeply buried self? What characteristics are necessary to become a serious reader? Karl Marx, James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, Eudora Welty, Ernest Hemingway, George Orwell, Carl Sagan, and many other famous writers were also avid readers. Unlike writers, Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk suggests, “To read is to transform that inward gaze into words, to study the world into which we pass when we retire into ourselves, and to do so with patience, obstinacy, and joy” (Pamuk, 2007, p. 83). Yet, when they immerse themselves into the imagined worlds of fiction and non-fiction, readers as well as writers possess a shared love for language that can communicate our complex humanity. How then is The New Yorker contributing to the cultural and political economies which promote books and book reading? How do cultural products such as books acquire critical and sometimes commercial value? Cultural critics might see the dichotomy between the social and economic contexts in which book cultures flourish. This dichotomy might also lend itself to defining the role of reading and books in today’s globalized culture.
The New Yorker serves up an annual cornucopia of book recommendations and reviews in its coveted “What We’re Reading This Summer” and “The Beach Read”. How did these columns become two of the magazine’s most popular? Donna Harrington-Lueker’s Books for Idle Hours: Nineteenth-Century Publishing and the Rise of Summer Reading (2019) highlights the evolution and practice of “summer reading” among the emerging middle class in the United States and their growing need for leisure activities. She found that in the late 19th century, bolstering industrialization and overcrowded urban spaces compelled people to retreat from the confines of the city and seek refuge with nature. Also, technological advancements such as fast-speed passenger trains and cruise ships made vacationing more accessible. As these phenomena grew, The New Yorker became one of many publications to advertise summer vacations, and reading was often visually depicted as a relaxing and acceptable practice (Yagoda, 2000). To date, the magazine has sustained a correspondingly seductive discourse around summer reading and reading for all seasons.
In spite of a pervasive digital landscape filled with 24-hour news cycles, streaming videos, enhanced radio programming, and social media platforms that co-exist with a presumably declining reading market, the book is here to stay. At the same time, while the number of books being sold may be increasing, questions abound about the quality of texts for mass consumption. Some critics even ask if book reviewers are providing advice to consumers or helping them maintain literary standards. Also, whose literary standards are being maintained and whose culture is it? Do ethical considerations arise for The New Yorker while producing major publicity for books, while also depending, in part, on the advertising revenue generated from promoting books? These troubling concerns further shape the book reviewing process. Whatever the outcome, The New Yorker will continue to promote the cultural commodity known as the book.
Harrington-Lueker, D. (2019). Books for Idle Hours: Nineteenth-Century Publishing and the Rise of Summer Reading. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press
Pamuk, O. (2007, January). My Father’s Suitcase. The New Yorker, 82-96
The New Yorker. (2019, January). New York: Condé Nast
The New Yorker. (2018, October). New York: Condé Nast
The New Yorker. (2017, June). New York: Condé Nast
The New Yorker. (2016 June). New York: Condé Nast
The New Yorker. (2015, June). New York: Condé Nast
The New Yorker. (2014, October). New York: Condé Nast
The New Yorker. (2006, November). New York: Condé Nast
The New Yorker. (1999, October). New York: Condé Nast
The New Yorker. (1934, May). New York: Condé Nast
Yagoda, B. (2000). About Town: The New Yorker and the World It Made. New York: Simon & Schuster