In college in the early 80s, some of us used to rail against the old-fashioned typeface, the impossibly long articles, the dull poems, the lack of a “letters to the editor” section, and the in-crowd tone as offensively undemocratic. But we read it anyway, even if some weeks we managed only the cartoons, or one of the two or three short stories, or Pauline Kael’s movie reviews. It was no secret that we wanted to be in that in-crowd.
Through persistent exposure, I eventually became a reader of the articles. To my surprise, those immense clumps of prose turned out to be interesting. In talking with others about my changed view of the articles, I’d always mention a long piece in which I was completely absorbed until I realized I was reading about the New York sewer system. It floored me that I could have been captivated by such a thing.
Last month, we got ourselves The Complete New Yorker—an electronic copy of every issue since 1925. This afternoon I finally had a chance to track down that article. Turned out to be a 1986 piece by Bill McKibben called “Apartment,” in which he explains in detail how electricity, heat, and water enter a New York City residence, and how sewage leaves. It runs from page 43 to page 91 and is quite fascinating, even 20 years later. Perhaps more so now, because you can see the origins of some of Bill McKibben’s future preoccupations. The 20-year-old advertising is also fascinating: Volkswagen encouraging you to take a trip to Germany to pick up your vehicle, Talbot’s including a coupon for you to subscribe to its catalog (6 issues a year!), notoriously bitchy Leona Helmsley guaranteeing that your suite at the Palace will be perfect.
Since then, the New Yorker has of course changed. You rarely see articles of that length anymore; bylines now precede the articles; there’s only one piece of fiction per issue; and they print letters now.
Hey, I’ve changed, too. After all, it’s been 20 years. Part of the treasure of The Complete New Yorker is perusing its evidence of how we’ve all changed.