Summer-House Lit, Part 2
Why can't journalists resist the trap?
The summer community as "the real America." Here we begin to enter the realm of outright delusion. Every summer David Broder assesses the national mood from his summer place on Beaver Island, Mich., in part, I suspect, to demonstrate that even when he's on vacation he's admirably incapable of enjoying himself. Since not much happens on Beaver Island—that's pretty much the point of Beaver Island—these "microcosm" columns are always mind-bendingly dull. (Writing in Washington's City Paper, my Slate colleague Jack Shafer once characterized Broder's Beaver Island dispatches as merging "the cosmic and common in a stupefying slop of prose.") This year Broder carped about a fence put up near the ferry in the name of homeland security, and went on in a tone that I think was intended to be wry and curmudgeonly about how this related, or didn't relate, to a recent mishap with a drawbridge. At least I think that's what Broder was writing about. Every time I try to read this column to the end my eyeballs lose their focus.
The summer home as reason to write hack freelance pieces about the summer home—somebody's gotta pay the mortgage on this baby! I refer you to "Nantucket On My Mind" by David Halberstam in the July 1999 Town and Country. He probably figured nobody whose opinion mattered to him would ever see it. But in the age of Nexis, you can never hide.
The summer community as city on a hill. If there's a hell for people who write about their summer houses, I'd like to enroll Ellen Goodman. Goodman used her sleepy Maine retreat this Aug. 14 to lecture the benighted souls who live life at too fast a pace:
I arrive at the island post office carrying an artifact from another age. It's a square envelope, handwritten, with a return address that can be found on a map….
We suffer from the illusion, says [former Microsoft techie Linda] Stone, that we can expand our personal bandwidth, connecting to more and more. Instead, we end up overstimulated, overwhelmed and, she adds, unfulfilled. Continuous partial attention inevitably feels like a lack of full attention….
It is not just my trip to the mailbox that has brought this to mind. I come here each summer to stop hurrying. My island is no Brigadoon: WiFi is on the way, and some people roam the island with their cell phones looking for a hot spot. But I exchange the Internet for the country road.
If only those silly welfare moms and Army soldiers in Iraq and flood victims waiting to be rescued atop their houses in New Orleans would buy themselves some little dacha on the coast of Maine, they'd be much, much happier. But they'll never learn, will they?
Timothy Noah is a former Slate staffer. His book about income inequality is The Great Divergence.