a Macdonaldist


“As smoking gives us something to do with our hands when we aren’t using them,” Dwight Macdonald wrote in 1957, “Time gives us something to do with our minds when we aren’t thinking.” What leads us here, Macdonald asks, to the banal, boxed trifles of popular journalism? What, exactly, is to be gained by a three-hundred-word once-over of “World News”? Do we seek, as Macdonald concedes to be Time’s singular benefit, “practice in reading”? Perhaps we crave immersion in a warm bath of facts, to “have the little things around, like pets,” to collect “them as boys collect postage stamps.” Macdonald spent years laboring in the fact-friendly Luce empire as a writer at Fortune, no doubt watching his paragraphs hacked apart, the perfect verb sacrificed on the altar of snappiness, the clauses chopped into the staccato anti-rhythms of “readability.” Buy it if you like, was Macdonald’s position. But don’t call it edification. If the pointless accumulation of facts was taken to be some sort of mental tonic, and time spent with The Ed Sullivan Show assumed to be wasted (you could have been reading Time!), Macdonald blamed a particularly American reverence for the scientific method. What happens in a three-minute nightly news segment is in some sense subject to verification and thus accorded a certain respect: true trash over untrue trash.

more from Kerry Howley at Bookforum here.