In an essay for the New Yorker, John McPhee (previously, previously, and previously) reflects on the points of reference writers choose in order to illuminate their topics, sometimes to the annoyance of readers. "Mention Beyoncé and everyone knows who she is. Mention Veronica Lake and you might as well be in the Quetico-Superior." Frame of Reference: To illuminate—or to irritate? [more inside]
James Somers thinks you’re using the wrong dictionary.
In 1807, [Noah Webster] started writing a dictionary, which he called, boldly,An American Dictionary of the English Language. He wanted it to be comprehensive, authoritative. Think of that: a man sits down, aiming to capture his language whole. Dictionaries today are not written this way. In fact it’d be strange even to say that they’re written. They are built by a large team, less a work of art than of engineering. When you read an entry you don’t get the sense that a person labored at his desk, alone, trying to put the essence of that word into words. That is, you don’t get a sense, the way you do from a good novel, that there was another mind as alive as yours on the other side of the page.
I had done all the research I was going to do, assembled enough material to fill a silo. And now I had no idea what to do with it - John McPhee, on narrative structure. [more inside]
This was not the act of a fringe contingent. The letter—which, until now, has never been published in its entirety—is signed by 154 staffers, including J.D. Salinger, Calvin Trillin, John McPhee, Jamaica Kincaid, Saul Steinberg and Janet Malcolm. There are a few notable abstentions, including John Updike and Charles McGrath, who would soon be named Gottlieb's deputy. At the bottom, it reads "cc: S. I. Newhouse."The Letter: Robert Gottlieb's Tenure as the New Yorker's Managing Editor, Elon Green, The Awl (SLTheAwl)
Robert Atwan, editor of the Best American Essays series, chooses the top ten essays since 1950 for PW's Tipsheet. All but three of the top essays are available to read online and linked in the article. (via)
Atchafalaya. As part of its coverage of the hurricane, the New Yorker has reposted on-line John McPhee's 1987 article on the Atchafalaya basin and the Army Corps of Engineer's long-running efforts to control the Mississippi. An excellent piece from one of our best writers.