The Annals Of Long Form, Atlantic Edition

by Conor Friedersdorf

As some of you know, I run a newsletter called The Best Of Journalism where exceptional non-fiction is curated and discussed, mostly because I just can’t get enough of the stuff as a reader. I fully awakened to this world of writing during graduate school, but my appetite was whet even earlier than that by this magazine, one of the first national publications I began reading sometime in high school. (In this regard I am especially indebted to James Fallows. In those days, I didn’t actually pay much attention to the bylines on the pieces I read, but when I flip through back issues from the 1980s and 1990s I am awed by how impressive a body of work he has produced. So many pieces I remember enjoying turned out to be his handy work.)

This week, as the news cycle slows for the Christmas holiday, I thought I’d delve into the treasure trove that is the archives of The Atlantic, which is rich enough that it could support its own magazine club. I’ll jump right in with the January 1999 issue (Netscape has a full page ad on page seven).

Below the fold, a taste of three great pieces from the issue.

THE FRONT OF THE BOOK features several great dispatches. Being a Californian, my favorite is "Paradise Found" by Benjamin Schwarz, who writes this about pre-World War II Los Angeles:

In what critics dismissed as a "huge country village," the veterans of bleak prairie winters found a place that in their earnest wonderment they called a "Paradise on Earth," where they rapturously grew in their own back yards the oranges, lemons, figs, nectarines, and pomegranates that were rare treats in groceries back home.

Usually belittled as bland sun seekers, these people seem to me grim realists who understood that because life was mostly loss and disappointment, small consolations should be gratefully savored. Today, for all their complaining, Angelenos have the same sense of gratitude when, after flying home from a trip to the East or the Midwest in January, they hungrily roll down the windows of the cab to smell the jasmine and feel the soft night air.

THE COVER PIECE from that issue is titled "What Is The Koran." It’s something I re-read a few years back when, along with so many others, I sought out various primers on Islam after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. It remains a useful piece on the religion’s holy book precisely because it was written prior to that judgment skewering event, and the subsequent politicization of every piece on the Islamic faith.

Its subject is the scholarly movement to treat the Koran as a historical document rather than a sacred text, and the tension it was causing in the Muslim world. Click through if you’re interested. Here I’ll reproduce a long quote, also in the piece, from Parvez Manzoor, a staunch Islamic critic of secular scholars:

The Orientalist enterprise of Qur'anic studies, whatever its other merits and services, was a project born of spite, bred in frustration and nourished by vengeance: the spite of the powerful for the powerless, the frustration of the "rational" towards the "superstitious" and the vengeance of the "orthodox" against the "non-conformist." At the greatest hour of his worldly-triumph, the Western man, coordinating the powers of the State, Church and Academia, launched his most determined assault on the citadel of Muslim faith. All the aberrant streaks of his arrogant personalityits reckless rationalism, its world-domineering phantasy and its sectarian fanaticismjoined in an unholy conspiracy to dislodge the Muslim Scripture from its firmly entrenched position as the epitome of historic authenticity and moral unassailability. The ultimate trophy that the Western man sought by his dare-devil venture was the Muslim mind itself. In order to rid the West forever of the "problem" of Islam, he reasoned, Muslim consciousness must be made to despair of the cognitive certainty of the Divine message revealed to the Prophet. Only a Muslim confounded of the historical authenticity or doctrinal autonomy of the Qur'anic revelation would abdicate his universal mission and hence pose no challenge to the global domination of the West. Such, at least, seems to have been the tacit, if not the explicit, rationale of the Orientalist assault on the Qur'an.

As a secularist who believes that neither the Koran nor the Bible is the incontestable word of God, I very much disagree with Manzoor. I also think that he is largely wrong about Western motives. But his words seem to me a good distillation of why some religious Muslims are threatened by aspects of the west other than our military, which is understandably the focus of recent discourse.

THE BACK OF THE BOOK features a book review titled "A Cataclysm of Thought" whose first paragraph alone makes it worth a look:

I’ve often been struck by the fact that philosophy students read Kant's Critique of Pure Reason, political-science majors read the U.S. Constitution, and literature classes read Shakespeare, but students of science rarely read the works of Mendeleev or Lavoisier or Einstein. The widely used college textbook from which I learned mechanics, the area of physics whose foundations were laid largely by Isaac Newton, contains a beautiful exposition of classical mechanics but only a handful of mentions of Newton, no excerpts from his Principia, and no pages at all on the history of the subject. From this one observation an intelligent creature from outer space could determine that there exists a profound difference between the disciplines we call natural science and those we call humanities or art or social science. Modern textbooks on science give no sense that scientific ideas come out of the minds of human beings. Instead science is portrayed as a set of current laws and results, inscribed like the Ten Commandments by some immediate but disembodied authority.

What follows is a fascinating look at the most remarkable year of Albert Einstein’s life, seen through the lens of five groundbreaking papers he published that revolutionized the field of physics and humanity’s fundamental understanding of the world around us.