The New York Times’ “The Lives They Lived”

Like many of its readers, and particularly many of its liberal readers, I have a love/hate relationship with the The New York Times. On the one hand, the paper is of course indispensable, and it is hands-down superior to its main competitor, The Washington Post. You can read great, essential reporting in the Times every single day. I’m a particular fan of their investigative series, of which United States of Subsidies, about the enormous tax breaks state and local governments give to corporations, which rarely produce the jobs and financial benefits the firms promise, was a recent stellar example. We also have the Times to thank for giving us Paul Krugman, who may be the greatest political columnist this country has ever produced. I would certainly argue that he is at the very least the greatest newspaper political columnist of our time.

On the other hand, the Times has much to be embarrassed about. It is guilty of plenty of lazy political reporting that reinforces center-right ideas and narratives. Its coverage of some areas of the world, like Latin America, is terrible. Its cultural critics tend to be exceedingly mediocre–the Sunday Book Review, in particular, has gotten much less intelligent and much more boring since Sam Tanenhaus became editor. And there is no punishment harsh enough, in this world or the next, for foisting Ross Douthat upon a blameless public.

One thing the Times often does well, though, are obituaries. On occasion their obits disappoint; for example, their recent obituary of the great economist Albert Hirschman was, in addition to mysteriously being two weeks late, highly inadequate as a treatment as the man’s work and contributions to the field. But their obituaries can also be improbably fascinating. For example, this recent obituary of the actor Charles Durning, who survived childhood trauma, poverty, harrowing experiences in combat during World War II, and decades of failure and obscurity before becoming one of the most successful character actors in the business, is a stunning America saga.

The Times also usually does a good job with its year-end “The Lives They Lived” edition of the Sunday Magazine. This year seems to me to be more of a mixed bag than usual, but there is some gold amongst the dross. On the down side, I didn’t, for example, care for the pieces on Newtown or Don Cornelius. The Newtown piece isn’t about Newtown at all; it’s about a tragic accident at a school that occurred 75 years ago. Particularly since memories of Newtown are so fresh, it hardly seems respectful to the victims for the author to use that tragedy as an excuse to write about another subject entirely (which she happens to be writing a book about). The Don Cornelius essay has a related problem — it’s a personal essay that is only peripherally about Don Cornelius (or, to be more exact, the writer’s memories of Soul Train). Essays like this can work, but only if they’re very good. This one isn’t. Don Cornelius was a far more interesting person than the writer seems to be, and the essay does not say anything smart or interesting or new about the Soul Train phenomenon.

But there are some very good pieces in the mix. As always, some of the best pieces are about people you never heard of, or barely heard of. There is, for example, this essay about Ethel Person, a psychiatrist who did pioneering work studying transgender people, treating them with far more sympathy and humanity than previous researchers. There’s also a wonderful piece about South African wildlife conservationist Lawrence Anthony, who “saved countless animals during his lifetime.” The oral history about Sylvia Woods, owner of the famed Harlem restaurant Sylvia’s, is also excellent. And who knew that Brooke Shields’ mom could be the subject of such a compelling profile?

Also highly recommended: the piece on Paradise Park, a New Jersey trailer park destroyed by Hurricane Sandy, and the one on The Beastie Boys’ Adam Yauch. I also got a kick out of this excerpt of a Phyllis Diller comedy routine, but then again, I’m a fan of that kind of over-the-top old school comedy. Clearly, YMMV.

Kathleen Geier

Kathleen Geier is a writer and public policy researcher who lives in Chicago. She blogs at Inequality Matters. Find her on Twitter: @Kathy_Gee