My initial reaction to The Complete New Yorker (Random House, $100, but discounted by at least $30 online) was to climb back on the couch and fall asleep and continue dreaming of something a lot like The Complete New Yorker. It's not that I wasn't looking forward to poking around this eight-DVD box set containing every page of every issue of every week of the entire 80-year run of the seminal magazine - every last story, cartoon, advertisement, everything.
It's that my reaction was the same reaction I get when I walk into a book store, a record store, a video store, or log onto iTunes.
I'm overwhelmed with choice.
I panic and I leave.
I'm also cheating this week: The Complete New Yorker is not your typical video release but a DVD-Rom, playable on computers using Windows or Mac operating systems. It's yet another reminder of how digital technology has turned us into a culture of completists. The obsessed record collector who scours flea markets for rare singles? He is us. If you landed an iPod last winter, you noticed the U2 Option: everything U2 ever released downloaded to your computer for a couple of hundred dollars. Next month Buffy fans will have the show's entire seven-year run available as one box of 40 DVDs.
Universities - while tiptoeing though a slew of copyright issues - have not overlooked the comprehensiveness, and the tidiness, of a digital record: The University of Michigan, along with Harvard and Stanford, are about halfway through digitizing every volume in their libraries.
The Complete New Yorker rests somewhere between - nothing quite so monumental as the entire holdings of the Library of Alexander, far more useful than a box containing every peep ever uttered by Monty Python. Magazines have attempted this before. Primarily National Geographic and Playboy - and no surprise. What those publications share with the New Yorker, what makes them perfect for digital condensing, is not just their timelessness: Right now there are hundreds of garages and basements across this country holding yellowing, teetering piles of New Yorkers (and National Geographics and Playboys) and their owners insist they will eventually get to that 1990 profile of James Baker, or that story about the people who write Hallmark greetings cards.
If nothing else, here is your excuse to clean. In an essay included with The Complete New Yorker, editor David Remnick marvels at how everything ever published in the magazine since its rocky debut in February of 1925 amounts to "a stack of disks no thicker than the grilled-cheese-and-tomato sandwich at your neighborhood diner." What he's modest about is what those disks contain: Install the first and you get a virtual replica of the mag's in-house filing system. Poke around for a few minutes and again - you'll want to nap.
Not from boredom.
From the sheer possibilities.
The database allows you to search by word, author, year, or issue, with a complete, full-color directory of covers (also searchable by artist). Click a cover, and you get that issue's table of contents (if it has one; tables of contents are a fairly recent addition to the idiosyncratic magazine, actually). In the search bar, I randomly typed "pillows" and got back 40 abstracts with the word in either a work of journalism, fiction, poem, or a cartoon.
Under "Departments" I clicked "Annals of Self-Esteem," and found a classic type of New Yorker story: a 1995 piece from novelist Nicholson Baker about what the models in all those mail-order catalogs are reading. In one pillow catalog, a woman is in bed trying to get through The Wood-Carver of Lympus. So Baker goes to a library and finds a copy of the actual book: It's about a farmer named Hughie.
Who knew? Who cared? Not a soul, but Baker makes it work.
In the "Author/Artist" category, I type "Joseph Mitchell," my favorite journalist of them all. I get back everything he ever wrote in the 65 years he worked there. But from 1931 to 1959 he wrote exactly 61 stories. Now here's the mysterious part: Looking at that list of stories, I see he wrote two more in 1964, then nothing else. Mitchell may have worked there every day until 1996, when he died, but there's no record of what he wrote between 1964 and 1996 because for 32 years, he never filed again.
If there's anything missing in The Complete New Yorker, it's the details of its long, strange, landmark history - only referenced in a bare bones timeline included in a companion book. That a book comes with this set at all - full of reproductions of stories and covers from the magazine - is an admission that no digital archive can completely substitute for the joy of curling up with the actual glossy edition and losing yourself in a subject you thought you never cared about. But that you can print pages of the magazine as they appeared - with the advertising - is a smart consolation.
It doesn't replace the convenience of an old tattered copy of John Updike's short fiction, but as a resource, and a reminder that the guy has written more than 800 stories (and exactly 167 works of fiction) for the magazine since 1954, it's fascinating and exhaustively invaluable. Just browsing through the list of authors is to flip through a century of journalism and fiction and art and poetry: E.B. White (1,803 stories), Dorothy Parker (115), Stephen King (9), Steve Martin (35), Truman Capote (13), James Baldwin (2), Art Spiegelman (68 drawings), Richard Avedon (126 photographs) - and on and on.
In the search bar, I typed "Toledo." Fifty-four stories and cartoons came back. I clicked one randomly: a 1947 story about a brutal 1919 heavyweight championship brawl here between Jess Willard and Jack Dempsey.
Dempsey shattered his jaw.
The fight was in Toledo because the mayor, Addison Q. Thacher, wanted it. He owned a Great Lakes salvaging business and, says the story, a gymnasium called the Toledo Athletic Club.
Contact Christopher Borrelli at: firstname.lastname@example.org