Life is funny sometimes. I recently subscribed again to The New Yorker - I used to subscribe, and then let my subscription lapse some years ago because I couldn't keep up with the stream of issues flowing into my mailbox before I had time to read the previous ones. For years I didn't miss it, until I bought a copy at a newsstand earlier this spring. Suddenly I couldn't believe I had stopped subscribing to such a gem lapse. I guess what happened is that, back when I decided i didn't care for the magazine, I hadn't yet become starved for the sort of smart news coverage and commentary that The New Yorker provides (that was only my second or third year in the Lehigh Valley and my time in Harvard Square had provided me with enough cultural analysis to last a while). A few more years have made me change my mind: The New Yorker definitely fills a void in my life now, especially when I'm not in the city.
So here I am, all proud of myself for having subscribed again, which granted me immediate access to the digital edition, and access to the print edition about ten days later. Lo and behold: for my very first print edition, I get this issue with a really ugly cover in black and green, which seems to portray a scene in a dark forest with statues that look like sphinxes. (Uh, what?) The word that came through my mind had two letters: N-O. I had already read the profile of Thomas Drake online (an important and stunning read, by the way), and the cover was so unappealing that I postponed opening the magazine for a while, after having been so excited by my new subscription.
When I finally did open that May 23 issue, I was in for a surprise. That surprise was called "Joseph Brodsky and the Fortunes of Misfortune", by Keith Gessen, and I loved the article so much - about poet and Nobel Prize winner Brodsky, and the biography of him that was recently published by Yale University Press - that I reread it from the beginning as soon as I was done. In high school I was fascinated by the Russian intellectuals who bravely stood up against Communism, and often paid a heavy price for criticizing the regime. I think the fight against oppression and dictatorship resonates with me because my family's experience and also because of my own personality. What can I say, I like loners with a (good) cause. I don't do mainstream well.
We in my family have always been outsiders, at least in my lifetime, and when I read that portrait I realized I had lost touch with something really important that used to ground me and that I had let fall to the wayside. I have never been good at "fitting in", I dislike the idea of behaving with the crowds (if everybody is doing something, I usually want to do the opposite) and I put a high value to taking stances I believe in regardless of their popularity. (This sounds all good and nice, until you upset the powers that be. When that happens, you'd better have grown some backbone while you were making lofty statements.) I'm not saying everyone should be like me. On the contrary: it is good that there are people out there who find their strength from being part of a team. We need people like that in many areas, from corporations to the military; this is just not a setting I would thrive in. If dead people count, Russian intellectuals are definitely part of my tribe.
I'm the sort of person who refuse to celebrate Valentine's Day because I think it is only a pretense to make people feel they *have* to do something with their significant other on that day, which just so happens to benefit big business enormously - I won't do anything because a marketing whiz tells me I should. I also haven't seen the Harry Potter movies and only read the first book; I wouldn't have been caught at the midnight premieres even if you had paid me. Following trends just isn't who I am. It doesn't mean others shouldn't do it - a lot of people thrive when they feel they are part of a large group because it gives them a sense of community. Community is good. Members of my own community, though, are a bit more atypical than most.
So why have I spent so much time recently trying to make myself compromise? convincing myself to give second chances to people and situations that I knew deep inside weren't worth it? I find my strength in walking the less traveled road, and the people I truly connect with are those on their own lonely paths. I had known it for a while, but the article in The New Yorker helped me articulate all that.
So I headed to McNally-Jackson in SoHo and got Brodsky's biography, which I would never had heard about if I hadn't read the article in The New Yorker; the book was a bit dry and overpriced but truly excellent. Later in June I also got books about Dmitri Shostakovich - this one, outstanding, and that one, which I haven't read yet - and a book about European musicians exiled in Southern California during World War II which, being published by the same academic house as Brodsky's biography, is just as overpriced, but promises to be a phenomenal read. I feel at home again.