Sunday, May 18, 2008

Review: The Best of Slate

The Best of Slate: A 10th Anniversary Anthology edited by David Plotz, introduction by Jacob Weisberg, foreword by Michael Kinsley. New York: Atlas Books, 2006. 304 pages.

First, I should note that I have no idea why I bought The Best of Slate: A 10th Anniversary Anthology. I didn't know what Slate was, although I recently discovered that I joined the site in January 2008. I suspect I acquired the book because I'm fond of anthologies—usually collections of good or sometimes great stories built around a theme, a one-stop shop. In short,without knowing what Slate is, I wanted to read the best of its first decade.

As I learned from Michael Kinsley's foreword, Slate began at Microsoft as an online magazine (currently owned by the Washington Post). I had in my hands a print tribute to an online publication—a way to package and sell tangible copies of electronically published words. More simply put, The Best of Slate is an opportunity to cash in on the site's popularity, to sell books, and to get book buyers to the site.

Long-time fans of Slate may appreciate seeing articles they remember in print and having a piece of a favorite Web site in their hands. As a relative newcomer, though, I am disappointed if the articles selected by editor David Plotz truly are the best work Slate has produced in 10 years.

The first article, "Airline English" by Cullen Murphy, enlightens the reader with the obvious; airline terms such as "craft," "crew," "captain," "first officer," "deck," "cabin," "bulkhead," and "hold" are derived from long-established shipping industry lingo (oddly, "pilot" didn't make the list). If there is anyone left who hasn't realized this, I'd be amazed. "Watching Couples Go By," in which we discover that men like women for physical comfort and conversation and to fill his need to be needed is another space filler, but was undoubtedly included in the collection to honor its author Herbert Stein, who passed away.

I found some common ground if not insight in Seth Stevenson's "Extroverted Like Me"; at least I recognized the emotionally numbing effects of antidepressants and the disturbing manifestations of withdrawal. Another personal essay, "Daddy Gets His Brain Back" by Michael Lewis, humorously recounts the disorientation the author feels after a head injury ("I remember that if I don't hand in my book in six weeks, I'm [expletive]"), but ends on a flat note. "The Breakfast Table" features biting repartee between husband Timothy Noah and wife Marjorie Williams about the trivial (the posterior of Jennifer Lopez) and serious (the circumvention of Clinton's attorney-client privilege and the social taboos around discussing racism, which is also addressed in "Racist Like Me" by Debra Dickerson).

A handful of articles provide useful background, such as "The Pledge of Allegiance" by David Greenberg, and relevant (if not original) commentary ("Fifty/Fifty Forever" by Mickey Kaus). From "What Did Bush Know?" (Fred Kaplan), we learn how 93 pages of intelligence information, caveats, and footnotes were distilled into only one page for the president's benefit, while "The Misunderestimated Man" (Jacob Weisberg) hints at the president's personal flaws that made this shortcut necessary. In "Unfairenheit 9/11," Christopher Hitchens rants about Michael Moore rather than his movie, disingenuously using the same dodgy tactics of which he accuses Moore.

As a whole, The Best of Slate is disappointing. For example, the introduction to 2001 notes that, "Slate produced some of its smartest, and most moving, work in the days and months after the Sept. 11 attacks." Yet the only piece about the attacks, "An Unlikely Hero" by Rebecca Liss, appears (toward the end of the 2002 chapter), and it is neither smart nor particularly moving despite the subject. Liss turns what could have been a compelling account of a painstaking rescue into a flat, spare story short on details or interest and focused more on why the media missed out on hero Dave Karnes (Liss reasons that, because Karnes wasn't a police officer or firefighter, those organizations didn't "make room" for him). When the subjects are solid, the writing is too often pedestrian.

If articles like the self-serving "Full Disclosure" by Henry Blodgett or "Not Dead at All" by Harriet McBride Johnson, who believes that liquid replacement of most of a functioning brain indicates a mere "disability," represent The Best of Slate, I'd be afraid to see its worst. It's like much of what appears on the Internet—it's adequate as a time waster during, say, lunch, but not worth keeping or remembering.

Sunday, 18 May 2008.
© 2008 by Diane L. Schirf.

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