There is no greater guilty pleasure on a lazy Sunday than treating yourself to The New York Times. While not as dense as it once was, to spend a few hours (and yes, to truly appreciate all that this paper has to offer, you will need to set aside meaningful time) combing through its sections is to understand both cultural literacy and why it is so important to have an actual newspaper in front of you. In the same way a trip to the grocery store where one walks up and down every aisle is guaranteed to unveil discoveries merely shopping with a list will not, physically paging through the entire Sunday Times exposes you to things browsing the Times on the Web never will. It is an immersive experience that, as it did today, can take you from the fictional Princeton-Plainsboro Hospital as the TV show House, M.D. ends to a $50 million condo on Park Avenue and many places in between.
Each section offers its own narrative and rhythm. Personally, I tend to start with the Book Review and in particular, the Letters to the Editor, which serve as an often hilarious form of high brow "Your Mama" disses, with writers criticizing reviewers, reviewers criticizing letter writers and the authors whose works have been reviewed sometimes chiming in to express dissatisfaction with the review done of their book. It's all a form of literary masturbation and liberal arts one-ups-manship, but the sheer fact that people who write in are that passionate about books is a telltale sign of your average Times reader. The reviews are another story altogether. Writing a concise summary of a several hundred page book is not an easy thing, but a well written review, like the one Bill Clinton did for Robert Caro's most recent book on LBJ, are an opportunity for the writer to flash his or her own literary chops as much as it is a chance to learn more about the book being reviewed. That the Book Review serves as an excellent source for people like me who do a lot of reading goes without saying.
Of course, long reads are a signature of the Sunday Times, and a favored place for them is the Metropolitan section, which somehow manages to offer the best of long and short form writing. Today's edition was particularly robust. A lengthy profile of Amanda Burden, the long serving Director of City Planning jumped from the front page to the inside fold and made a compelling argument for the indelible mark she has left in her 11 years as head of that agency, which has included overseeing the instantly iconic High Line Park, expansive redevelopment along the Brooklyn waterfront and the rezoning of more than 10,000 city blocks. But the real treat is a small column penned by Marielle Anzelone, a botanist and urban ecologist who writes with a lyricism and whimsy about nature that is enchanting. Ms. Anzelone packs much into her modest column, identifying and describing animals, plant, flora and fauna, while giving a depth and richness to the nature she is observing that only great writing can do. Her latest dispatch from Staten Island touched on the migratory habits of red admiral butterflies, the discovery of a raccoon skull, "dull, purple rhizomorphs of honey mushrooms" that curled around logs and a "tiny teepee" of twigs constructed by a caterpillar constructed on the underside of a leaf. More recent modifications to this section now include Sunday Routines, a snapshot of a typical Sunday for a well known New Yorker (today's was Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott), the @Trending NYC column that brings the week in Twitter (at least as it pertains to NY) home ,as well as smaller stories, often about the opening and closing of stores, restaurants and shops.
I like to think of the Sunday Times as Anzelone's column writ large, a forest within which there is much to be discovered. If you jump over to Automobiles, your eco-heart will go pitter patter with a review of the latest Prius and an article about vo-techs that train students to work more intimately with hybrid engines. Pop over to Travel and you will not only get great road trip ideas, but a Question & Answer column with NPR icon Garrison Keiller. While Sports is deeply invested in the hockey and basketball playoffs (the former particularly so with both the hometown Rangers and across the river rivals Devils in a Best of Seven slugfest), small gems, like the one found on today's back page, about the women's golfer Mickey Wright, winner of 82 professional titles and the first woman to be honored with a gallery at the USGA Museum in New Jersey, are equally enjoyable.
But the tall trees in the Sunday Times cultural forest are found in its entertainment, real estate and business sections. While they may seem disparate, they are all of a piece and tell a story of New York at its fairy-tale best - a place that is at the cutting edge of finance, fashion and fine arts. No section of the paper exemplifies this narrative more than Sunday Styles, a shameless paean to class, specifically, not yours, unless you rub elbows at the charity events, gallery openings or museum dinners that are memorialized in photographs each week or have the good fortune of having your wedding announced in the "Vows" section. To read about the pending (or recent) betrothals is to appreciate how the other half (or more specifically, the 1%) live. Blogs dissect the educational pedigree and status of bride and groom and family members alike, kibbutz over the prominence of the law firms, medical residencies and political masters these young (and sometimes not so young) masters of the universe are employed at and allow hokum and treacly love stories to be penned in the service of matrimony. That Sunday Styles unabashedly drops in advertising from companies like Bvlgari, Polo and Tiffany only serves to reinforce the unabashed narrative of cultural and societal elitism.
Of course, the distilled essence of New York's elite is the Real Estate section, where today's edition featured a singer whose only credit is an off Broadway play buying an apartment for $1.175 million and a 500 square foot place in Chelsea that sold for a cool $460,000. The full page On the Market is house porn featuring residences that go for well into the seven figures with maintenance and property tax assessments greater than the Gross Domestic Product of Berkino Faso. A feature highlighting the biggest sale of the week gives you 750 words on a $52.5 million condo on Park Avenue and the front page story on recently constructed high rises quotes monthly rental rates at a 53 story building on Fifth Avenue at upwards of $10,000 a month. This orgy of consumption is only leavened by the must read Streetscapes, a beautifully written history lesson in capsule that takes buildings from long ago eras and provides their backstories. Many are still standing and the photographs that accompany this column add great value to the reporting.
As a companion section, Business connects the people buying those expensive pieces of property to the financial institutions they lead. Essential reading includes Gretchen Morgenson's column and the Corner Office interview, which offers insight into how CEOs and other leaders mold employees, hire and how (and where) they learned the life lessons that made them successful. While Business also provides guest columns, I tend to find them disappointing, too analytical on the one hand and often allowing those whose hands are dirty from failing policy (I'm looking at you Greg Mankiw) a platform to dissemble and engage in revisionist history. The section has also shrunk in recent years and no longer does, as a matter of course, meaningful stock analysis, something that would be useful to the average investor.
Providing ballast at the other end of the "forest" is the "A" section and Week in Review. Most newspapers would be glad to pack into an entire week the information the Sunday Times offers in its front section, and its national and international reporting have no peer. Indeed, if there's one section to read, it is this one. The Times will clue you in to everything from Chinese investments in rare earth minerals in Africa to the lost generation of Spaniards being crushed under the weight of unemployment and austerity. Of course, feature articles that cover important issues like our drawdown from Afghanistan come with high-level sourcing that competitors far and wide would kill for and drive conversation in the national news for days. Smaller pieces, like well crafted obituaries of people like Levon Helm and reporting from little corners of America offer added value and pleasure to this essential reading. Sadly, the Week in Review is not as "must read" as it once was. I have not found favor in a recent "reboot" and the loss of Frank Rich from the opinion page was an enormous loss. While the new format offers more in the way of reporting and an expanded "letters" section uses an interesting premise of thesis, comment and rebuttal, this is one part of the paper I hope the Sulzberger family considers re-vamping once again, either with new/different/better opinion writers or a tighter focus on subject matter to provide greater narrative coherence.
The Sunday Times is essential reading for anyone who wishes to be conversant and informed on an entire spectrum of issues and is curious about the world around them. It is, in its way, a tactile Google, leading the inquisitive to explore and learn more about a wide range of subjects, many of which you first learn about in the pages of the newspaper. In my part of New Jersey, a Sunday Times will set you back $5, which would be a bargain at twice the price.