Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Best Lead of the Month

'The popular history of a humdrum object—that faddish genre in which the most boring items on your dining-room table (salt, cod, potatoes, bananas, chocolate) are revealed to be secret juggernauts of profound social change—has recently become so popular that it’s probably time for someone to write a popular history of it. If I were forced, I’d diagnose the trend as yet another symptom (like $4 gas or home foreclosures) of our current flavor of late-phase capitalism—a commercialism so far advanced we’ve begun transferring historical glories from our leaders (Napoleon, Churchill, Gandhi) to our products, so that we find ourselves surrounded by greatness in every aisle of Whole Foods. I’d also add, if forced, that the genre’s wild success seems to predict its own obsolescence: The conclusion that everything is integral to the history of everything is perilously close, in the end, to no conclusion at all.'
--from a sublimely written book review in the current issue of New York Magazine, by a writer I'd never previously encountered. He goes on in the piece to write brilliant riffs like this one: "Good popular history requires a paradoxical skill set: on one hand, the centrifugal instinct to roam widely for obscure details that would otherwise rot, neglected, in far corners of the archives; on the other, a centripetal impulse to radically compress those rescued details for an audience that might well have forgotten the basic outlines of WWII. Pop histories must be simultaneously comprehensive and concise, expansive and abridged, deep and shallow." You can review earlier best leads (lead paragraphs, that is) here.


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