Among the admittedly less than scintillating cohort of Americans who read the Sunday New York Times, I would hazard that there are few who remain immune to the temptations of the lifestyle pages—even enclosed, as they are, by the powerful anesthetic of the business and opinion pages. All of us, after all, contain multitudes; in each of us homo editorialus jostles with a Balzacian desire to know how the other half—of the upper quarter—lives.
If, as Henry James remarked, literature satisfies two tastes—for the sensation of recognition, and for that of surprise—then no one can doubt that the taste satisfied by the ‘Sunday Routine’ page of the Metropolitan section is a literary one. No one, that is, should indict himself for frivolity if his own Sunday routine consists of the careful perusal of this page, though he must admit that recognition is more frequent than surprise.
But what is it, exactly, that we encounter when we open these sacral pages? On whom and on what falls the imprimatur of their matchless font and design?
To begin with, we should recall that there is no such thing as a mere reader of the New York Times. Every reader of the Times is also a reader of the reader of the Times; and none more so than those who have achieved the self-realization of appearing in its pages as—the highest common denominator—a reader of the Times. With the mere opening of the Metropolitan section, then, a rarefied meta-density has been achieved, a triple mirror, with filters.
That said, it must be conceded that even the Times, with its vast, mysterious power to leech interest from any story, no matter how lurid, does not always succeed in blanching these figures. Individuality, true eccentricity, occasionally blot these anaphrodisiac pages. Nonetheless, there is a pervading tone and sensibility, alike in the Chelsea divorce attorney and the Flatbush astrologer; a rich vein of the complacencies, the real and assumed anxieties, of the American liberal.
Thankfully, they are happy where they live. The manifold pleasures of the city, sensory and pluralistic, are their be-all and end-all; and it would be churlish to point out that to commit these enthusiasms to print is to see them set into a treacly cant in which stories matter, and the secrets of culture are to be found in cuisine. But for all their complacence, which roams over a thick turf of cliche, as their corgis and terriers do over the dog parks of Brooklyn, the reader is never far from intimations of disquiet. The world beyond Carroll Gardens cannot be answered for. ‘We landed here,’ says one individual of Ditmas Park (median house price: $1.5 million), as from the ravages of the Spanish Inquisition, but in fact from Seattle. Those for whom political mobilization began, and ended, with what Paul Street calls the ‘tangerine-tinted antichrist’ are wont to speak of anxiety walks and staying sane. Regardless of what public and private afflictions threaten the subject’s equilibrium, what matters is the individual strategy of coping; and no activity eludes conscription to the cause of wellness. A director of a story-telling nonprofit, newly resident in Bed-Stuy, treats herself to ‘one poem each morning,’ like a B vitamin; it ‘centers me.’
If the routines are therapeutic, so too is their itemization. With faux-casual meticulousness, they tell us of their eating and drinking, the watering of their plants, their email habits. We learn, for instance, that the audio executive makes herself an omelet ‘with mushrooms and spinach and maybe some precooked shrimp.’ The reflection that this is the excusably thoughtless elaboration of someone who is being encouraged to talk about herself is arrested by the word precooked. These details are as deliberate as Flaubert’s.
For all their flaunted urbanness, such people live not even in the suburbs of the interesting. Their numbing revelations, conveyed in the inimitable public-private register that is the hallmark of the modern philistine, are all of a piece. ‘Morning is a holy spiritual time for me,’ confides a 56-year-old resident of the Upper East Side. ‘I drink a glass of warm water with lemon. I like to slowly activate my digestive system.’ In the rituals of self-care, curated indulgence is balanced by a compulsive rigor (‘I wake up between 5.30 and 6’); everywhere there is evidence of a melding of sensibilities. Nonprofit administrators are married to pharmaceutical executives. Lovers, husbands, girlfriends alike are referred to as ‘partners’, as though intimacy were contractual, and any specificity, any resort to traditional terms, were a concession to the cultural imaginary of Mike Pence.
Despite the studied minutiae of these self-portraits, we are left with only an attenuated sense of diversity. Read any three or four of them in sequence, and the suspicion arises that you have been reading the productions of a moderately sophisticated AI program, supplied with a Hulu subscription, a few Yotam Ottolenghi recipes, and Barack Obama’s year-end book list.
Although malice, like the guillotine, has its place in all true social criticism, I would not be blinded by cynicism. No doubt, the desire to open our eyes to our fellow citizens is good; the impulse for a sense of community is good—best of all would be the actualization and empowerment of any community comprising the readers of the Times.
The subjects and readers of these pieces resemble an animal that devours both its own excrement, and that of creatures higher up the food chain. One could extend the simile, and say that, apart from these choice morsels, they are nourished by a daily health bar whose proteins, carbohydrates, and saturated fats are manufactured by Friedman, Brooks, and Douthat.
Happily, however, the gurus of wellness have assured us that not every day need begin with such rigor. No guilt should be felt, on one day out of seven, in turning first to the ‘Sunday Routine’. Something, that is, to slowly activate the digestive system.