David Brooks: If you want to be a better person, read these essays
Every year, the Sidney Awards, named for the renowned philosopher Sidney Hook, go out to some of the best magazine essays of the year. Anybody interested in being a better person will click the links to these essays in the online version of this column, and read attentively.
The first winner is Peter Hessler's New Yorker article, " Dr. Don: The life of a small-town druggist ." It is a profile of a man named Don Colcord who lives in Nucla, Colo., and serves that community medically, spiritually, financially and beyond.
The article is a beautiful description of what it's like to live in a small town, where everybody knows each other's sins and virtues. As one resident puts it, "I like to play chess. I moved to a small town and nobody played chess there, but one guy challenged me to checkers. I always thought it was kind of a simple game, but I accepted. And he beat me nine or 10 games in a row. That's sort of like living in a small town. It's a simple game, but it's played at a higher level."
Every year, thousands of New York City high-school students take a test hoping to get into the superelite Stuyvesant High School. This year, 569 Asian-Americans qualified, along with 179 whites, 13 Hispanics and 12 blacks. Results like that feed the stereotype that Asians are smart, hard-working, repressed and conformist.
Wesley Yang blows that stereotype apart in " Paper Tigers " in New York Magazine. Yang interviews dozens of young Asian-Americans who, unsatisfied with good grades alone, are trying to learn things like how to be more assertive and how to make trouble. In one weekend boot camp in New York City, the Asian students broaden their cultural repertoire by chanting, "I do what I want!" Yang's essay is a subtle description of the immigrant experience, 2011.
In this age of self-congratulation, every political movement needs self-criticism. Steven F. Hayward does that favor for conservatism in Breakthrough Journal . He notes that conservatism is failing on its own terms. The conservative base, the white middle class, is experiencing stagnant wages and social decay. Government is bigger than ever.
Hayward offers some suggestions. The Starve the Beast strategy — reducing taxes as a way to induce spending cuts — has failed. Better to adopt a Serve the Check strategy. Confront people with a tax bill that accurately reflects their public spending choices. See what decisions they make then.
Robert Boyers' essay, " A Beauty " in the journal Agni, lingers in the mind. It is about Boyers' late friend, the writer Charles Newman, who was astonishingly handsome.
Seductiveness was his daily currency. Women — even waitresses three decades his junior — were constantly flirting with him and he was constantly flirting with them. "Women especially were drawn to this beauty as to a quality inordinately precious, as if being close to it might miraculously confer upon them a sense of comparable endowment," Boyers writes. Perhaps unintentionally, the portrait makes beauty seem soul-destroying. Newman comes across as a leopard gracefully and ruthlessly stalking one prey after another.
Malcolm Gladwell had another sensational year at The New Yorker. In May, he wrote " Creation Myth " on the creativity chain — the differences between theorists, inventors and implementers. In February, he wrote " The Order of Things ," a devastating takedown of the U.S. News and World Report and other college and university rankings.
Rankings vary enormously according to how they are calculated. If you rank law schools without regard to cost, then Chicago, Yale and Harvard come out on top. If you do account for cost, suddenly Brigham Young and Alabama surge. If you rank by which school produces gifted graduates, Yale is on top. If you rank by which school does the most for the students it admits, Penn State dominates.
Sandra Tsing Loh delivers a bracing look at menopause in her Atlantic essay, " The Bitch Is Back ." ''I am fast losing patience with the day job of motherhood," Loh writes. She also describes periods of "crippling, unreasoning gloom." During them, "You experience anxiety at the notion of being face-to-face with your loved ones, because they will read from your dull eyes that which you can no longer hide — that you don't love them, never will again."
Alan Lightman writes in " The Accidental Universe " in Harper's that the existence of life is so incredibly improbable that there can be only two realistic explanations: Either there is a God who designed all this, or there exist many, many different universes, a vast majority of which are lifeless. Many physicists are gravitating to the latter theory. Our universe is just one of many. The universal laws of physics aren't really universal. They are just the arbitrary arrangements that happen to prevail in our own little universe.
The essays in my next column will be strictly about this universe.