The Complete New Yorker, just published on eight DVDs (labelled “for computer use only”), allows one to browse through 4,109 issues of The New Yorker published since February 12, 1925 (one exception: September 6, 1947, is missing): an astonishing experience for New Yorker readers whose living rooms, bedrooms and bathrooms have been filling up over the decades at the rate of fifty issues a year. Until now, only when moving house might one hope to come across, say, Janet Flanner’s profile of Adolph Hitler from 1936 (the last sentence of which is: “Adolf Hitler still talks more than any other man in Europe”), or her hair-raising account (of, or as, “Mrs Jeffries”) of escaping Nazi Europe in 1943.
Everything in these half million pages (with the exception of ads and humorous news items that pad out columns) has been indexed, and every item in the database is accompanied by a synopsis, even (especially) the cartoons (“Woman to man in living room: ‘I used to think you were a Renaissance man, Michael, but now I think you’re a Neanderthal’”; “Man looks in mirror in the morning: ‘Boy, am I glad to see you!’”).
The fiction too is fiercely synopsized: in Donald Barthelme’s lovely story “Manual for Sons,” we are told (or warned) that “Writer lists at the beginning of story the different categories of fathers to be discussed such as (1) Mad fathers, (2) Fathers as teachers, (13) Colors of fathers, (19) Sexual organs, (23) Patricide, a poor idea, and summation.” The synopses are the result of an in-house cataloguing system devised by the editors to keep track of their materials over the years; they exude a kind of literary madness, as if written in heated moments by abstractors whose first language is not always English. The synopsis of Elias Canetti’s memoir of Vienna includes the following: “He was filled with the torment of things to come. He would have given his last breath not to be right.” In the synopsis of Lillian Ross’s unblinking account of Hemingway’s visit to New York in 1957, we are told: “He’d like to see all the new fighters, horses, ballets, bike races, dames, bullfighters painters, sons of bitches, big international whores, restaurants, newsreels and never have to write a line about them.”
The Complete New Yorker is a vast treatise on writing and reading, editing and publishing in the twentieth century, and certainly an important publishing event of the twenty-first. Every writer, every editor, every reader concerned with the craft and the art of narrative should own a copy. It was listed on Amazon in September for less than $65 US.