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New Yorker: the door opened by “Gangnam Style”

The capital of South Korea makes a good first impression, not least with its infrastructure. This May, Seoul’s ever-expanding subway system opened another addition, an extension of the Shinbundang Line that connects four existing stations. The northernmost, Sinsa, lies in an area popularly associated with South Korea’s world-renowned cosmetic-surgery industry. (In search of coffee there one morning, I passed up the three or four closest cafés, intimidated by their location inside the clinics themselves.) The southernmost, Gangnam, needs no introduction. On one platform wall, a large and somewhat amateurish mural pays homage to the pop star Park Jae-sang, better known as Psy, whose viral hit “Gangnam Style” introduced the eponymous section of Seoul to the world ten years ago.

Psy was not an obvious pop-cultural ambassador. At the time of the release of “Gangnam Style,” he was a thirty-four-year-old Berklee College of Music dropout unknown outside Korea and censured more than once in Korea for both his musical content and personal conduct. The singer-rapper-jokester seemed to exist in a reality apart from K-pop, with its impeccably turned-out young performers, organized into boy bands and girl groups precision-engineered for international appeal. Yet it was he—not 2NE1, not SHINee, not Wonder Girls, not Big Bang—who finally cracked the West. (The global phenomenon that is BTS wouldn’t officially début until the following year.) Even more surprisingly, Psy did it with what amounted to a Korean inside joke: his big hit lampoons the garish and culturally incongruous pretensions of Seoul’s nouveau riche, a class in evidence nowhere more so than Gangnam.

Psy once likened Gangnam to “the Beverly Hills of Korea,” which conveys the area’s associations with wealth and fame but downplays its size. In the most literal sense, Gangnam constitutes half of Seoul: the word means “south of the river”—that is, the Han River that runs through the city in the manner of the Seine or the Thames. Below the Han is a ward of the city, called Gangnam, which is nearly three times the size of Beverly Hills. Korean television dramas make near-perpetual use of its high-society signifiers: skyscrapers, luxury boutiques, night clubs, streets full of imported cars. But, as recently as the early nineteen-seventies, the place was nothing but farmland. Gangnam’s urbanization rushed down lines laid out by South Korea’s military government in the late nineteen-sixties, a process that enriched the owners of the former agricultural expanse. “Gangnam Style” shows a keen awareness of the chonsereoum (a rustic dowdiness, literally “village likeness”) beneath the quasi-cosmopolitan flash.

Read the whole thing at the New Yorker.

Books on Cities: Juan Villoro, Horizontal Vertigo

It doesn’t hurt to keep in mind a list of the cities to which you could relocate should everything fall apart where you are. That list need not be expansive: mine has only two columns, the Asia one headed by Osaka and the America one by Mexico City. (It has no Europe column as yet, but I’m told I’d like Milan.) That I live in Korea makes Japan the geographically convenient choice. But I’m also an American, and Americans have a time-honored (if not generally honorable) tradition of heading south of the border in troubled times. Though I can’t claim intimate knowledge of country of Mexico, a few visits to its capital have made palpable to me the allure of the city of Mexico. Not having been in nearly a decade now, I picked up Juan Villoro’s Horizontal Vertigo: A City Called Mexico to refresh my impressions.

I’ve taken note of Villoro’s name ever ever since my first visit to Mexico City, which I made to record interviews for my podcast Notebook on Cities and Culture. This isn’t because I interviewed him but because I didn’t: my failure to make contact placed him in the hall of “the ones that got away.” The more I learn about him, the more unfortunate this seems, since I can hardly imagine an interviewee at once as well-suited to the show’s sensibility and as well-placed to speak about a city. Born and raised in Mexico City, he’s also in his six-and-a-half decades “lived for three years in Berlin, three in Barcelona, and two semesters at universities in the United States”: just enough experience of everyday life in outside lands, as I see it, to grant him an at least partially objective perception of everyday life in his hometown.

As much memoir as city book, Horizontal Vertigo reveals Villoro to be an even more “international” figure than he’d seemed. “I had no ingenuity, no gift for telling jokes, but I said strange things,” he writes of his childhood self. “That came from my miscellaneous cultural influences. My father was born in Barcelona and grew up in Belgium. He would say whirligig instead of top and staff instead of cane” (details rendered nearly meaningless, if perhaps necessarily so, by the English translation). The young Villoro went to the Alexander von Humboldt German School, with the result that “at the age of six, I knew how to read and write, but only in German” — an experience that “enabled me to understand my own language as an elusive free space that I had to treasure at all costs.”

Read the whole thing at Substack.

New Yorker: the cracked wisdom of Dril

Benjamin Franklin’s admirers have to acknowledge certain embarrassing truths about the man, not least that, were he alive in the twenty-first century, he would almost certainly be big on Twitter. As the dulcet narration of Ken Burns’s two-part documentary “Benjamin Franklin” explains, Franklin’s achievement of “such remarkable success” that would lead him to be “handed down for generations as the embodiment of the American Dream,” began with publishing a newspaper, the Pennsylvania Gazette, at the age of twenty-three. Franklin included “crime stories, notices of fires and deaths, a moral advice column, funny tales he concocted that flirted with sexual innuendo, and letters from readers, including some he wrote himself, under tongue-in-cheek pseudonyms like Anthony Afterwit and Alice Addertongue,” creating a reading experience not entirely dissimilar to scrolling through one’s timeline.

He also engaged in a now common social-media practice by using the Gazette to promote other, more commercially viable projects, including, in 1732, the one that would make his name: “Poor Richard’s Almanack.” The yearly volumes, according to Burns’s documentary, were “ostensibly written by the hapless Richard Saunders, who claimed he was writing his almanac simply because his wife threatened to burn his books if he didn’t earn something from them.” It was in this fictional persona that Franklin composed the “Almanack,” the popularity of which brought him considerable wealth. Essentially an information-dense calendar, the Almanack was pitched not to the American book-buying class but the larger, less refined, more practical-minded public beyond, offering a mixture of useful (or at least fascinating) facts, generously seasoned with poems, recipes, and improving proverbs.

Or, as another, highly un-Burnsian telling puts it: “Poor Richard’s Almanack” was “filled to the brim with relatable Quotes, stuuff about the ocean tides, information on vinegar prices, and other good shit of that nature.” These words, and their typos, come from “The Get Rich and Become God Method,” the second book by the comic-absurdist Twitter personality known as Dril. He describes Franklin—calling him, with characteristic garbledness, “Ben Franken”—as “a fellow wise man and publisher of astute witticisms who I have often modeled my brand after.” Indeed, Dril continues, “if famous ‘Ben Franken’ were alive today he would read every page of the Get Rich and Become God Method, and say, ‘Yes, this is what I was ultimately setting out to accomplish all those years ago.’”

Read the whole thing at the New Yorker.

Los Angeles Review of Books: Ward Farnsworth’s guidebooks to English virtuosity and ancient philosophy

Fifteen years ago, The New York Times Book Review put out a call for readers’ favorite literary sentences of the past quarter-century, intending to print a pageful of the best examples. This was meant to correct the “blind spot” of the then-new edition of the Yale Book of Quotations (2006), with its seemingly inexplicable dearth of contributions from writers born after 1950. A month later, the Review’s editor Dwight Garner conceded defeat: “[M]ore than 400 people e-mailed us or posted lines on our Web site,” but “[m]any of the quotes weren’t from writers at all, or were from quite old (or quite dead) ones.” The few that qualified amounted to thin gruel indeed: from Jonathan Safran Foer: “Try to live so that you can always tell the truth”; from Irvine Welsh: “If things go a bit dodgy, ah jist cannae be bothered.”

This did not surprise Ward Farnsworth. “Current customs about rhetoric don’t encourage the creation of great and memorable sentences that lend themselves to the kind of display the Times proposed,” he writes in Farnsworth’s Classical English Style (2020). “Usually the apex of modern achievement is a sentence that sets new standards for informality.” That book was the third and latest in a series beginning with Farnsworth’s Classical English Rhetoric (2010) and Farnsworth’s Classical English Metaphor (2006). In parallel, Farnsworth has also written two books on ancient philosophy, The Practicing Stoic: A Philosophical User’s Manual (2018) and The Socratic Method: A Practitioner’s Handbook (2021). All were published over the past decade, the same length of time he’s held his formidable day job as dean of the University of Texas School of Law.

These titles may collectively suggest a rather old-fashioned authorial intelligence at work. In our time, we seldom look for guidance to the likes of Socrates or (despite a recent Silicon Valley–inflected revival, duly subject to bien-pensant sneering) the Stoics. Still less do we set great store by virtuosity in the English language, especially in the countries that speak it natively. Elsewhere, educational industries trade lucratively on the promise of competence in what their advertisements claim to be the unchallenged medium of global communication. But in the speech to be heard and writing to be read in, say, the United States of America, competence is the highest state to which many aspire. As Farnsworth writes in Classical English Style, “A large share of books about prose style are about how to avoid mistakes. They explain why bad writing sounds that way. This book is about stylistic virtue.”

Read the whole thing at the Los Angeles Review of Books.

Books on Cities: Witold Rybczynski, City Life (1995)

The American shopping mall emerged in the nineteen-fifties, during which the United States became at once more affluent and less urban. “The postwar period saw much new suburban construction, but just as the subdivision replaced the garden suburb, the shopping village was replaced by the regional shopping center,” writes architect-critic-historian Witold Rybczynski. “Probably the first such center was Northgate, which opened on the outskirts of Seattle on May 1, 1950.” I know Northgate well, or at least I used to know well what Northgate had evolved into by the mid-nineteen-nineties, when Rybczynski wrote those words. Back then, for a suburban preteen such as myself, much life outside home and school came packaged by the shopping mall: perhaps Bellevue Square, that paragon of dead-center-of-the-middle-class aspiration; perhaps the more run-down but more culturally unpredictable Crossroads; perhaps Northgate, whose faintly left-behind feeling owed, I now suspect, to its aforementioned history.

Not that I knew anything about that history at the time, or would have cared. At eleven years old, my concerns had more to do with the volumes of Choose Your Own Adventure at Half Price Books or the anime VHS tapes at the Suncoast Motion Picture Company. Yet as one ages, one takes an interest in the the larger forces that influenced one’s early years, not least the built environment in which it played out. This, in effect, is the subject of Rybczynski’s City Life: the forces that shaped not the built environment of his own early years, which he spent in the England and Canada of the nineteen-fifties, but mine. This happened inadvertently, of course, a function of when he wrote the book, which when published in 1995 was promoted as an explanation of the state of the contemporary American city.

City Life is an awfully broad title for such a project, even granted the subtitle Urban Expectations in a New World. Far punchier would have been the name of its first chapter, Why Aren’t Our Cities Like That? So Rybczynski was asked, over for dinner at the home he and his wife had built themselves in rural Quebec, by a Montrealer friend just back from Paris. Those words express the distinctive mixture of wonder and frustration felt by many North Americans recently exposed to European capitals, if one that typically disperses in short order. But Rybczynski, who’s been writing about architecture, housing, and cities since at least the early 1980s, pursued the question: why aren’t our cities like that? Given his professional experience, he must have known the answer — but also that the question itself could constitute a sturdy framework for a book’s worth of essays.

Read the whole thing at Substack.

New Yorker: What The Twilight Zone reveals about today’s prestige TV

Television is a vast wasteland, or so I often heard while growing up. That description had been commonplace since Newton Minow, of the F.C.C., used it in his address at the convention of the National Association of Broadcasters on May 9, 1961. But, as with so many famous American turns of phrase, its context was soon forgotten. In his speech, titled “Television and the Public Interest,” Minow challenged the industry members in his audience to sit down and watch their own stations for an entire day. “Keep your eyes glued to that set until the station signs off. I can assure you that what you will observe is a vast wasteland,” one crossed by “a procession of game shows, formula comedies about totally unbelievable families, blood and thunder, mayhem, violence, sadism, murder, Western bad men, Western good men, private eyes, gangsters, more violence, and cartoons.”

“When television is bad,” Minow claimed, “nothing is worse”—but not before assuring his listeners that when television is good, nothing is better. In support, he adduced a handful of then current examples: specials hosted by Fred Astaire and Bing Crosby, adaptations of Joseph Conrad’s “Victory” and Winston Churchill’s memoirs. By far the best-remembered of Minow’s exemptions from the wasteland is “The Twilight Zone,” which had débuted on CBS in 1959 and would run until 1964. It’s also the least obviously high-minded: as an anthology series, “The Twilight Zone” tells a different story each episode, and many of the genres through which it cycles do involve a certain amount of mayhem, violence, sadism, and murder—as well as a few gangsters and Western men both good and bad. Yet “The Twilight Zone” also stands as perhaps the earliest example of what we think of today as auteur-driven prestige television.

Read the whole thing at the New Yorker.

Books on Cities: Joan Didion, Miami (1987)

Joan Didion is associated with no place more than southern California. Yet she also spent two major stretches of her life in New York, one from the mid-nineteen-fifties to the mid-nineteen-sixties, and another from 1988 until her death this past December. She made that second move the year after publishing Miami, an ostensible examination of the titular South Floridian metropolis mainly, she later admitted, “about what I think is wrong with Washington.” Yet Miami is also about a specific Miami, and in a sense the dominant one: Cuban Miami, whose inhabitants constituted 56 percent of the total population by the time Didion began visiting the city in the mid-eighties. “There had come to exist in South Florida two parallel cultures,” she writes, “separate but not exactly equal, a key distinction being that only one of the two, the Cuban, exhibited even a remote interest in the activities of the other.”

What surprises me about this is the implied existence of a non-Cuban Miami. Though I still haven’t been there, I’ve long imagined the city’s overall cultural formation as even more dependent on Cuba than that of Los Angeles has been on Mexico. Of course, even 35 years ago a major American city’s being influenced by a large number of Latin American immigrants wasn’t a novelty. Miami’s uniqueness manifests to Didion linguistically: “In, say, Los Angeles, Spanish remained a language only barely registered by the Anglo population, part of the ambient noise, the language spoken by the people who worked in the car wash and came to trim the trees and cleared the tables in restaurants. In Miami Spanish was spoken by the people who ate in the restaurants, the people who owned the cars and the trees, which made, on the socioauditory scale, a considerable difference.”

Hence the way I occasionally heard Spanish described by my fellow students of the language back in Los Angeles: there an advantage, but in Miami a necessity. Though evidently without Spanish herself, Didion was sensitive enough to the undercurrents of power to pick up on what its use revealed about the city. (The Hispanophone David Rieff published his own Going to Miami in 1988, followed by Los Angeles: Capital of the Third World in 1991, but neither book remains prominent in the literature of those cities.) She engages Cuban Miami through its English-speakers, as when “on one of the first evenings I spent in Miami I sat at midnight over carne con papas in an art-filled condominium in one of the Arquitectonica buildings on Brickell Avenue and listened to several exiles talk about the relationship of what was said in Washington to what was done in Miami.”

Read the whole thing at Substack.

Los Angeles Review of Books: Robert Whiting, Tokyo Junkie

Early in his new book, Robert Whiting refers to the “Yamate Line,” and most readers who have been to Tokyo in the past half-century will suspect a misprint. Few visitors to the Japanese capital could avoid the subway train in question, which runs in a loop through such well-known districts as Shibuya, Shinjuku, Ikebukuro, and Ginza. But they’ll know it as the Yamanote Line, a romanization of its Japanese name (literally “mountain’s hand,” equivalent to the English “foothill”) first adopted in 1971. But by then, the Californian Whiting had already logged almost a decade in Japan, having been sent there by the United States Air Force in 1962. “Tokyo is the best city in the world,” he remembers a master sergeant saying when informing him of his posting: “You’ll be over there with all those geisha girls, riding around in rickshaws. Ten million people. More neon signs than you can imagine.”

The neon comes up quite often throughout Tokyo Junkie: 60 Years of Bright Lights and Back Alleys … and Baseball, as one of the city’s few constants during a period of ceaseless change. Whiting closes his memoir with his 77th birthday lunch at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Nihonbashi: “It occurred to me over our gelato that there is very little left in Tokyo that is older than I am, given how this city keeps on renewing itself.” He arrived nearly 60 years ago to “the biggest construction site in the world,” a transformation motivated by preparation for the 1964 Summer Olympics. Still, there were plenty of attractions amid all the dust: there were “deluxe movie theaters with 70mm screens, and pachinko pinball parlors jangling noisily all day long,” beside “noodle stands, yakitori shops with their smoky grills, food marts, and discount shops,” beside “ancient temples with serene gardens of gravel and rocks and inner courtyards.”

As in many pre-Olympics development binges of the 20th century, an overarching goal was to bring the infrastructure of a “backward” country up to the standards of the modern West. “[D]espite the frantic rebuilding, less than a quarter of the city’s twenty-three sprawling wards had flush sewage systems at all, making Tokyo one of the world’s most undeveloped (and odiferous) megalopolises,” Whiting recalls, olfactory memories supposedly being the most deeply recorded of them all: “Tokyo was also rat-infested. Some 40 percent of Japanese had tapeworms. There were no ambulances, and infant mortality was twenty times what it is today. Moreover, house theft was rampant, narcotics use was endemic, and it was considered too dangerous to walk in public parks at night.” This is a far cry indeed from the city world-renowned for its safe streets at all hours, its high-tech bidets, and its far-reaching, precision-engineered train networks.

Read the whole thing at the Los Angeles Review of Books.

Books on Cities: A. N. Wilson, London: A History (2004)

London is a world city. Los Angeles, where I used to live, is less a world city than, as I once saw a banner at the airport call it, a “city that’s a world in itself.” Seoul, where I now live, is not a world city, despite strenuous promotional efforts on the part of its officialdom to convert it into one. By none of these descriptions do I mean to deliver a judgment either positive or negative; indeed, Seoul’s not being a world city counts among the reasons I enjoy living here. But recent decades have made “world city” into a highly desirable label: so highly, in fact, that the failure to qualify for it — that is, the failure to be a large, multiethnic metropolis sustained by international commerce and immigration — is now seen in many quarters as a mark of shame.

World-city hood as understood in the twenty-first century also requires widespread use of the English language. (This has done its part to keep Seoul out of the running, as has the not-unrelated ethnic homogeneity of the population.) It’s hardly a surprise, then, that the very worldliest of cities would happen to include the capital of England. But in any sense apart from the strictly geographic, is London in England? “Some years ago, I opined that London was not really an English city anymore,” John Cleese tweeted in 2019. “Since then, virtually all my friends from abroad have confirmed my observation.” To my mind he didn’t necessarily mean this in, as they say, a bad way — especially given his well-documented professional history of ridiculing Englishness — but the tweet nonetheless sparked a predictably harsh backlash whose contributors including London mayor Sadiq Khan.

“Londoners know that our diversity is our greatest strength,” Khan responded. “We are proudly the English capital, a European city, and a global hub.” This political marketing-speak belongs very much to our age, one that mandates an increasingly great distance between the statesman and the man of letters. And so it is to a man of letters we must turn for a more serious articulation of the quality in question. “I deposit my daughter at school with her Mexican classroom assistant and her friends whose parents are, to name but seven, Italian, African American, Japanese, Chinese, Palestinian, German, and Indian,” writes A.N. Wilson of a typical day in early-twenty-first century London. There follow encounters with a Sikh upholsterer, a Malaysian barber, waiters French, Bulgarian, and Indian, and a Polish carpenter, among other citizens who form a cast it would now cause grave offense to call colorful.

Read the whole thing at Substack.

Books on Cities: Taras Grescoe, Straphanger

I moved from Los Angeles to Seoul a bit over six years ago, and it wouldn’t be much of an exaggeration to say I did so because Seoul has the better subway system. It still surprises some people to hear that Los Angeles, a city globally perceived as synonymous with American “car culture,” has a subway system at all. Yet the city put into service the first of its modern urban rail lines in 1990, and four or five more have opened since. Though still inadequate to the size of its territory, Los Angeles Metro Rail as a whole tends favorably to impress the visitors who ride it. Those visitors include no less a public-transit connoisseur than Taras Grescoe, whose tough-but-fair evaluation constitutes a chapter of his book Straphanger: Saving Our Cities and Ourselves from the Automobile, first published in 2012.

Back then I was still living in Los Angeles, and indeed first having my eyes opened to the urban itself. Lacking experience of adult life within a major city proper, I was intoxicated with the possibilities newly opened to me: that, for instance, of catching a subway train to Little Tokyo from my home in Koreatown whenever I pleased. The vague notion I had of buying a car once I got to “L.A.” soon evaporated, and I began avidly to track the progress of not just Metro’s construction but also the city’s development in general, especially where it produced greater density. Even then it would have been difficult for me not to like Straphanger, which offers clear-eyed assessment of Los Angeles’ urban condition as well as evocative accounts of travel and transit in about a dozen other world cities, from New York and Toronto to Copenhagen and Shanghai.

Read the whole thing at Substack.