The Plague-Ground – The Rise of the Online Intellectual

There’s a flood of online courses, experts and self-improvers out there, all vying for time on my screen and my day.

Frankly,  I’m exhausted from all the ways I can be even better than I am.

Forget “can be better.” Must!

So I do what we all do when it’s all just too much: I flee into the past. True, it’s a foreign country and they do things differently there. But I’ve spent most of my life wandering its streets and alleys.

One of them is called “The best teacher I ever had.” That person is alive in all of us still, no matter how long ago they set our curiosity aflame. My 50th college reunion is in June 2022, so it’s been a big, long, hot flame.

But amidst all the webinars and mass-conflabs, I stumbled across the kind of thing I love and think you do as well. That is, hearing from an incredibly smart, engaging person on a subject we both love – and live to learn more about. Someone deliciously highbrow in our middle-brow world.

One of my ancient loves is for The New Yorker. When I was a kid, its back -copies weighed down our attic even more than National Geographic, and today it’s as elegant and relevant as ever.

Last month, a friend flipped me a link about an online course called Reading The New Yorker, with staff writer Adam Gopnik, and presented by the redoubtable 92nd Street Y.

The title alone hooked me. But when you add the teacher, well, for an hour every Wednesday afternoon, I’m hooked, and you can be too for the next two weeks at least. Because Adam Gopnik talks better than the best writers write, and he’s one hell of a writer, having penned Paris to the Moon about his family’s life as ex-pats in Paris, as well as hundreds of New Yorker articles.

Gopnik is like two other Canadian polymaths, Margaret MacMillan and Wade Davis, who speak not in paragraphs, but in pages, and who think not in particular eras or subjects, but in boundary-busting worlds.

Gopnik is now an American. But he grew up in Montreal. His parents are Americans who came to Canada. Both of them taught at McGill, his father, Irwin, an English professor, and his mother, Myrna, a linguistics professor.

Irwin and Myrna lived in the Chateau Apartments on Sherbrooke Street with their brood of six kids. In the apartment directly across the hall lived Mordecai and Florence Richler with their five kids. Just think of the dinner-table talk.

For our weekly course, Adam Gopnik assigns homework for all the participants. These are famous New Yorker articles by the two or three writers he profiles each session, from Pauline Kael’s review of Bonnie and Clyde, to Edmund Wilson on detective novels, to Janet Flanner on Isadora Duncan, to Lillian Ross on Ernest Hemingway.

Scrambling to read these before class, I feel like I’m in Freshman English again, never able to keep up with the load of reading. But this time, I can just bookmark them for reading later, after Gopnik has analysed and interpreted them.

He appears online in his apartment in New York. Behind him is a bookshelf that’s slightly dishevelled, like its owner. But you also know he’s read all those books “early and often.”

But while he critiques and reports on the lives and work of some of America’s great critics and reporters, Gopnik has no agenda other than his deep love of writing and writers. He’s the ultimate fan and I am his fanboy.

Some may say that Adam Gopnik is an acquired taste.

To you I say, open your taste buds to this amazing new flavour that’s been around for years: the delicious nourishment that comes from someone who thinks and speaks both wisely and so well.

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7 replies
  1. Avatar
    Madeline Thompson says:

    I’m coming a little late to the Gopnik lectures but I’ll try and sign for the last
    ones on the list. Sounds like my kind of favourite thing, writers on writers
    and Gopnik I am sure will be a treasure on that! Thank you for posting, Bob!

    Reply
  2. Avatar
    Linda Granfield says:

    Love your L. P. Hartley, “The Go-Between” quote. Now there’s a book to read again! I’ll add it to my list. And Gopnik’s a gem!
    Hi to Jean!

    Reply

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