September 17, 2013.
Jonathan Franzen on The Encyclopedia of New York, DeLillo:
It worries me a little, therefore, that the city [NYC] has now been paid the additional compliment of a million-and-a-half-word encyclopedia. There’s something decidedly valedictory about The Encyclopedia of New York City, edited by the same Kenneth Jackson who wrote Crab grass Frontier. The Encyclopedia has the heft and ambition of a monument. It’s a grand list for an age in love with lists. As soon as I got the book, I paged to the entry for “Sewers,” a topic of perennial fascination. I found a good historical overview of the subject but no hint of the daily drama of contemporary sewers. Indeed, a numbing sameness afflicts nearly all the longer articles in the Encyclopedia. Each entry begins with vaguely colorful arcana from the city’s earliest history (reading about “Intellectuals,” for example, we learn that “the leading intellectual circle of the late eighteenth century was the Friendly Club”), goes on to pursue the subject doggedly decade by decade, often achieving a full head of steam around 1930 (thus, under “Intellectuals,” The New Republic and Partisan Review are treated at some length), and finally peters out rather sadly in the present (“In the mid 1990s … major magazines of opinion continued to be published in the city but lacked the urgency and influence that they had enjoyed in earlier times”). It’s an odd thing to experience the present, which is, after all, so present, again and again as the dusty terminus of historical spurs. Reviewers of the Encyclopedia have dwelled on what’s missing from it, and their quibbles reinforce the notion of the city as a work completed, rather than a work in progress.
The chief pleasure of the Encyclopedia lies in a kind of Derridean lateral slide of association. I move from “Terrorism” to read about “Anarchism,” across the page to “Amphibians and Reptiles,” on to “Birds,” and (after a side trip to “Birdland” and a courtesy call on “Parker, Charlie”) to “Cockroaches,” which “are known to be attracted to toothpaste,” which brings me to “Colgate-Palmolive” and its founder “Colgate, William,” who fled England in 1795 “to escape public hostility toward his father, who had supported the French Revolution.” It’s like a game of Telephone: “Anarchism” connecting with the sansculottes not by way of history but, rather, via “Cockroaches.”
Yet there’s something empty about this pleasure. A city lives in the eye, ear, and nose of the solitary beholder. You turn to literature to find the interior point of intersection between subject and city, and as a living connection to New York’s history a few lines of Herman Melville or Don DeLillo outweigh whole pages of an encyclopedia. This is Ishmael downtown:
There now is your insular city of the Manhattoes, belted round by wharves as Indian isles by coral reefs—commerce surrounds it with her surf. Right and left, the streets take you waterward.
This is DeLillo’s Bucky Wunderlick, walking the same streets more than a century later:
It was early afternoon and soon to rain, nondeliverance in the air, a chemical smell from the river. The bridges were cruelly beautiful in this weather, gray ladies nearly dead to all the poetry written in their names.
DeLillo, an essential New York artist, is unmentioned in the Encyclopedia, whose lengthy “Literature” article has little more to say about the post-Norman Mailer scene than this: “Many of the writers who had become well known in the 1960s left the city during the 1970s and 1980s.”
Jonathan Franzen, How To Be Alone