Monocles, manacles, and yes, The New Yorker

When I unwrapped The Complete New Yorker this Christmas, I was so grateful to my sister. Here was a complete, 80-year archive of one of the few magazines I’ve subscribed to and avidly read down through the years. There is something so irrationally satisfying in knowing that you have full access to a treasure-trove like that — in believing that any half-remembered story, any quirky illustration, any lumbering old ad, any suburban-sophisticate take on a given 20th-century phenomenon is now all yours, just a few keystrokes away.

I couldn’t quite square this possessive exultation with the knowledge that any decent library offers its patrons access to an infinitely wider array of human expression and documentation, also just a few keystrokes away. I ended up chalking it up to the unique aura of The New Yorker — the illusions it has so longed sustained of subjectivity, possession, discrimination, privilege — an aura that had me maintaining my subscription even through the Tina years. Somehow, it seemed right that this content would be walled off from Proquestian aggregation, left a world unto itself and thus bestowed.

That said… The Complete New Yorker has proven to be one difficult world to navigate. Others have elaborately deplored its software: it inflicts an uncustomizable user interface, and seems hellbent on preventing you from doing anything with these files besides flipping through indifferently scanned pages. Thinking about extracting that poem by Louis Gluck? Think again: it’s forever pinned to that Peugeot ad. Wanting to finally read that long Rachel Carson essay? Quit hunting for a ‘printer-friendly’ version: there ain’t none. Hoping to play with a Charles Addams cartoon? Well, print out its page and color it in with crayons, because that’s about all you’re allowed to do. This lock-down of content into its original context might seem like an endorsement of situationalism, and might stoke some cultural studies, but it’s really about copyright law, and it severely limits the possibilities of this archive in a digital environment.

Worse yet, you can’t even load the whole thing onto your computer; the files cannot be copied to your hard drive — they’re stuck, instead, on eight DVDs. That means that if you wish to jump around chronologically, the search screen will constantly command you to insert a different disk. Put one into your trusty Powerbook, and sit back for a spirited little tune I like to call the Eustace Shuffle. You might wish to pour yourself a scotch while you wait. Roaming through The Complete New Yorker is indeed evocative of a bygone era, but that era is the one when you had to load several floppies sequentially to install a program, and who misses those days? It’s no wonder that information has started appear on how to disable this crippleware and actually get the files you bought (or, in my case, your sister bought you) onto your computer and freely accessible.

My biggest quarrel, though, is with the sad, sad search functionality. Let’s take a look at some of the “search tips,” shall we?

The search does not search the complete text of articles. I see. Really? Wow. That’s why my search for “Shelley Winters” today turned up exactly zero snarky Pauline Kael references. It did direct me (shuffle shuffle shuffle) to a long Renata Adler piece on Martin Luther King (and having glanced through that piece, I still have no idea why). And it did point me to a Talk of the Town about Yoo-Hoo, that sublime chocolate drink…. RIP, Shelley. You deserved better.

The Complete New Yorker searches for Shelley Winters

The New Yorker has been consistent in its keywording over the years, even as vocabulary has evolved. Therefore, articles about cars are filed under “Automobiles,” boxers under “Prizefighters,” and World War II under “Second World War.” Each article abstract will display the list of matching keywords as well. Use these exact words to search for related articles. You may copy these words from the abstracts and paste them into the search bar. Ok! Got it! I’m ready to punch my way through keywords like a prizefighter – so where is the thesaurus? I guess I should be assembling it bit by bit, noting matching keywords and painstakingly collecting them, like automobile rations during the Second World War.

The search finds all matching terms in an item’s abstract, keywords, and titles, and caption. It will not, however, search authors, departments, years, or issue date. Those may be selected in the windows above. Well, I’ll be hogtied and googled. Am I in the wrong field? Have I always been in the wrong field? Is an author name not a key word? Is that old hunt for Martin Amis screwing up my results down here? And about those abstracts — why do some items have them, some don’t? Why are they so, well, various? Some seem to be the first few paragraphs of a piece, others seem to be garrulous summations.

Search terms like “or” and “and” will be ignored. Quotation marks will be also be ignored. I see. So my query

“very” and “lame” or “incredibly” and “lame”

is out of the question. That’s fine — ignore it. Boolean’s so very … Atlantic Monthly ….

Yes, well, perhaps, and evidently: searching is destined to be a felicitous capricious fluttering business in the rich little world of The Complete New Yorker. Still and all, I’m glad I own it. You just never know what might flutter by.

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