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‘The New Yorker,’ on Index Cards

If you go to The New Yorker‘s Web site, find an article or story you’re interested in, and click on it, you will be presented with a page the top of which looks something like this:

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If you are a subscriber, you can make additional clicks and see a facsimile of this short story—the top of which is visible at the bottom of this screen shot—as well as the entire issue of January 31, 1948, including cartoons and ads. But the text and image, as shown, are available to anyone in the world with an Internet connection.

The image is the cover of the issue. What about the text? If you’ve read “A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” you’ll know that it’s a précis of Salinger’s story. But what an odd précis it is: present-tense, dispassionate, almost journalistic in its reluctance to claim too much knowledge (“He seems to get along perfectly with the child”). It is Salinger’s story summarized by someone else. A librarian, perhaps?

A librarian definitely. The close to 200,000 summaries viewable on newyorker.com were written by the magazine’s first librarian, Ebba Jonsson; by Helen Stark (who started working at the magazine in 1945 and was head librarian from 1970 to 1992); and by their successors and colleagues. Until the 1990s, the summaries were typed on index cards, which were kept in catalogs in the magazine’s offices.

I was fortunate to have access to those catalogs in the late 1990s, while researching my history of the magazine, About Town: The New Yorker and the World It Made, and so when I encountered the summaries on the Web, they looked familiar. The current head librarian, Jon Michaud, explained to me that all the cards were scanned in 2004, “in preparation for the release of the Complete New Yorker, which came out in 2005. Those scans were later put up on the Web as our digital archive.”

Naturally, one immediately looks up the most famous New Yorker pieces, like “Bananafish” or John Hersey’s “Hiroshima,” published in the issue of August 31, 1946. That summary is succinct (even omitting an article and a pronoun) and apt. It reads, in its entirety:

Entire issue devoted to the telling of the effects of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. Follows the fate of six survivors and describes their experiences. The survivors were: Miss Toshiko Sasaki, a clerk in the personnel department of the East Asia Tin Works; Dr. Masakazy Fuji; Father Wilherlm Kleinsorge, a German priest of the Society of Jesus, the Rev. Kiyoshi Tanimoto, pastor of the Hiroshima Methodist Church, and a Mrs. Hatsuyo Nakimura, a tailor’s widow, and her three children.

(Note that a name is given as Wilherlm rather than Wilhelm. This is probably due not to a typo but to a mistake by the OCR software that turned the scanned images of the cards into text. However, the reference to “six survivors” followed by just five names–Dr. Terufumi Sasaki is left out–would appear to be an oversight.)

The précis of the second installment of the 1965 Truman Capote series that became In Cold Blood is, by contrast, intriguingly selective in its detail:

ANNALS OF CRIME about the murder of the Clutter family of River Valley Farm, Holcomb, Kansas. Holcomb’s mail messenger, Mrs. Sadie Truitt, recalled a murder that took place in 1920. A man named Walter Tunif was working on the Finnup ranch. He had a car that turned out to be stolen. One evening the Sheriff Orlie Hefner, rode out to the ranch to ask Tunif a few questions. Tunif shot the sheriff right through the heart, and then let out of there on one of the Funnup horses. Word spread for miles around; a posse was formed. The next morning, they caught up with Tunif, According to Mrs. Truitt, “he didn’t get a chance to say how d’you do. On account of the boys were pretty irate. They jus let the buckshot fly.”

But it’s not just the greatest hits; everything is accounted for. If you’re interested in The New Yorker and/or 20th-century American literature and journalism, you can spend untold happy hours browsing this resource and coming upon all sorts of treasures, surprises, and quirky features. For example, the “keywords” originated as the magazine’s internal cross-referencing system, and it would certainly be useful to be able to see a list of all cartoons about, say, desert islands. But I can’t imagine how anyone looking up  CHILDREN, FLORIDA, INSANE, or SUICIDE would be helped by being directed to “Bananafish.”

For New Yorker buffs, perhaps the coolest feature of the Web site is its byline data. Before Tina Brown became editor (in 1993), pieces in the Talk of the Town section were unsigned; newyorker.com reveals which ones were written by Lillian Ross, Ian Frazier, Jamaica Kincaid, Whitney Balliett, James Thurber, or, interestingly, Ebba Jonsson herself, who was responsible for quite a few Talk items. William Shawn, who started working at the magazine in 1933 and was editor in chief from 1952 until 1987, published just one signed contribution (and that was was only with his initials). But the Web site credits him with 168 unsigned pieces, starting with a 1933 Talk item about the elevators in the General Electric building and ending with a 1986 obituary of the music critic Winthrop Sargeant. As Kenny Bania would say, “That’s gold, Jerry! Gold!”

It’s also enlightening to look up the person I would call the greatest New Yorker contributor: John Updike. The first (in 1954) and last (in 2009) of his 859 contributions were poems. (And can I just say again: 859!) His first published short story, also in 1954, was a classic called “Friends From Philadelphia.” Ebba Jonsson or Helen Stark expertly summed it up (and it’s impossible to say whether “Plymoth” is a typo or an OCR fail):

John, aged 16, goes over to the Lutzes and is pleased to see that Thelma, who is about his age, and of whom he is very fond, is at home. He has a problem: his mother is expecting friends from Philadelphia and she wants him to buy a bottle of wine. They will not sell him any at the store, because of his age. Mrs. Lutz says her husband will drive him over to the store when he comes in. Mr. Lutz breezes in, a little intoxicated, but he seems wonderful to John. Before they go to the store, Mr. Lutz remarks that, although he never went to college he can afford a new car whenever he wants, while John’s educated father drives an old Plymoth. He practically forces John to drive his new Buick, although the boy scarcely knows how to drive. He buys the wine and gives John $1.25 change from $2. As John walks to his house he glances at the bottle and sees that the label reads “Chateau Mouton-Rothschild 1937.”

The keywords are ADOLESCENCE, AUTOMOBILES, and WINE.

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