Something for the weekend

“Why, Sir, you find no man, at all intellectual, who is willing to leave London”, said Samuel Johnson. “No, Sir, when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.”

Much the same might be said about the Web. Here, for example, is a brief list of remarkable things I encountered on it today.

  • The Pope wears Prada by Colm Toibin. A masterful review essay in the London Review of Books on the attempts by the Catholic hierarchy to lay the blame for clerical child abuse at the door of male homosexuality.
  • Liquidator by Neal Ascherson. Also in the LRB. Lovely review of Adam Sisman’s biography of Hugh Trevor-Roper. Having earlier read (and been repelled by) T-R’s Letters from Oxford, I had assumed I could give the biography a miss. But Ascherson’s extensive and balanced review makes me want to revise that decision. Sigh: no rest for the wicked.
  • Letting Go by Atul Gawande, an extraordinary New Yorker essay on the futility (and inhumanity) that results from contemporary medicine’s inability to help people face up to incurable, terminable illness. I’ve seen quite a lot of this stuff at close range in my time, and this is one of the most illuminating and insightful pieces I’ve read on the subject. Gawande is a surgeon who writes like an angel. “The Cost Conundrum”, his New Yorker essay on the absurdities of the American approach to health care had a significant impact on the way Obama’s crowd approached the health issue.
  • After the Crackdown by John Lee Anderson is a long, cogent and exceedingly depressing essay on Iran and the West’s difficulties in dealing with that complex and intriguing society.
  • “Painkiller Deathstreak” by Nicolson Baker. An extraordinary piece (alas, available only to subscribers to print or digital editions of the New Yorker, so maybe it’s unfair to include it here) about what happens when a gifted and observant writer spends a month of his life playing computer games. I’ve often blanched at the arrogance of adults denouncing ‘mindless’ computer games which (a) they’ve never tried to play, and (b) are actually far too complex for them to master. The result is a chasm between the shared cultural experience of entire generations — and total ignorance on the part of adults. The kids who understand and play games have better things to do than to delineate the contours of this exotic subculture for the benefit of their elders. So it was an extraordinarily good idea to get a sophisticated, observant, articulate writer to have a go. Here’s a sample:

    To begin with, you must master the controller. On the Xbox 360 controller, which looks like a catamaran, there are seventeen possible points of contact. In order to run, crouch, aim, fire, pause, leap, speak, stab, grab, kick, dismember, unlock, climb, crawl, parry, roll, or resuscitate a fallen comrade, you must press or nudge or woggle these various buttons singly or in combination, performing tiny feats of exactitude that are different for each game. It’s a little like playing “Blue Rondo à la Turk” on the clarinet, then switching to the tenor sax, then the oboe, then back to the clarinet.

  • And it’s not even the weekend yet.