A Brainy Feast

Recently I’ve developed ambivalent feelings about the New Yorker Magazine. However, last weekend it staged a literary and cultural tour-de-force that was difficult not to appreciate. It was the eleventh year of the New Yorker Festival that this year brought together a really brilliant group of writers, artists, performers, critics, etc. for a three-day intellectual extravaganza.

The Festival customarily begins on Friday night with paired discussions among writers, including this year such luminaries as Orhan Pamuk, Lorrie Moore, Mary Karr, Zadie Smith, Joyce Carol Oates, E. L. Doctorow, Annie Proulx, etc. Taken together it was an impressive group of contemporary writers.

Earlier that evening there was also a special opening night screening of The Social Network that you surely must know is about the inception and development of Facebook.

Saturday consisted of individual lectures (Atul Gawande, How to Live When You Have to Die; Paul Goldberger, Why Architecture Matters), panel discussions (Natural Disasters, The Case for Gay Marriage), conversations (Paul Krugman talking with Larissa MacFarquhar; Yo-Yo Ma talking with Alex Ross) etc.

Sunday was more of the same with a mix of talks (Malcolm Gladwell who was all over the place), panels (Your Brain on the Internet), an afternoon of poetry readings, walking tours about New York, including the legendary Festival tradition and all time favorite with Calvin Trillin leading a small group on a culinary saunter through lower Manhattan that always concludes with a dim-sum feast!

One year I tried to get a couple of tickets to Trillin’s feast. I duly waited until moment the tickets officially went on sale and then I called at the strike of the gong. It could not have been more than five to ten seconds later when I placed my order and was duly informed the event was already sold out.

These are only a sampling of this year’s events. However, you can read about all of them on the Festival Blog that provides a brief summary of each session along with short video introductions to some of the presentations. If you scroll through the list of offerings you’ll see what a goldmine it is. You could easily spend an entire weekend mining its riches.

Even better, if you happen to have a little extra cash and some spare time, you can watch a complete video of a fair number of the presentations. The individual videos are priced at $4.95 and access to all of them is $59.95. I’ve bought a few of them (Gawande, Gladwell, the Krugman discussion, and Lorrie Moore’s.

I’ve started watching Gawande’s lecture and it is meticulous and moving to be sure. It is also an hour and a half (including about 20 minutes of really fine questions from a very literate audience) and I wanted to stop about mid-way through so I could spend time mulling it over before watching any further.

Perhaps this introduction will tempt you to take advantage of the video presentations of this year’s three-day “celebration of ideas and the arts.” They will only be available until the end of the month.

Since the first New Yorker Festival in 2000 to celebrate the magazines’ 75th Anniversary, they have been holding these gatherings on an annual basis about this time of year. In comparison with recent years, I thought this year’s program was especially cerebral, more focused on the literary arts and social issues and less on celebrities and the media.