A writer for the New Yorker since 1986, Adam Gopnik has come to be known as one of the preeminent, wittiest, and most charming interpreters of contemporary life writing today.
His recent essays have tackled subjects ranging from the state of New York department stores (“like luxury liners becalmed in a lagoon”), to menus of long-gone restaurants (“a lovely paper monument to hope”), to busyness (“our art form, our civic ritual”). But before New York, there was Paris. For five years, he and his family lived in this city of myth and history, of bureaucracy and beauty, and for five years he chronicled their daily delights and exasperations to suggest larger truths about France, America, and culture in general. From these essays he compiled the bestseller Paris to the Moon (2000), which has been described as “the finest book on France in recent years.” His most recent accomplishment was editing Americans in Paris: A Literary Anthology (2004), a compilation of three centuries of writing about Paris.
Born in Philadelphia, Gopnik grew up in Montreal where his parents were both professors at McGill University, and from which he received a B.A. He received an M.A. from the Institute of Fine Arts. His work for the New Yorker has won both the National Magazine Award for Essay and the George Polk Award for Magazine Reporting. Gopnik lives in New York City.
Excerpt from Paris to the Moon (2001)In Paris explanations come in a predictable sequence, no matter what is being explained. First comes the explanation in terms of the unique, romantic individual, then the explanation in terms of ideological absolutes, and then the explanation in terms of the futility of all explanation. So, for instance, if your clothes dryer breaks down and you want to get the people from BHV–the strange Sears, Roebuck of Paris–to come fix it, you will be told, first, that only one man knows how it works and he cannot be found (explanation in terms of the gifts of the romanticized individual); next, that it cannot be fixed for a week because of a store policy (explanation in terms of ideological necessity); and, finally, that you are perfectly right to find all this exasperating, but nothing can be done, because it is in the nature of things for a dryer to break down, dryers are like that (futility of explanation itself). “They are sensitive machines; they are ill suited to the task; no one has ever made one successfully,” the store bureaucrat in charge of service says, sighing. “C’est normal.” And what works small works big too. The same sequence that explains the broken dryer also governs the explanations of the French Revolution that have been offered by the major French historians. “Voltaire did all this!” was de La Villette’s explanation (only one workman); an inevitable fight between the bourgeoisie and the aristocrats, the Marxists said (store policy); until, finally, Foucault announced that there is nothing really worth explaining in the coming of the Reign of Terror, since everything in Western culture, seen properly, is a reign of terror (all dryers are like that).
Selected WorkAmerican in Paris: A Literary Anthology (2004) (editor)Paris to the Moon (2001)
Links“Times Regained,” an article from the New Yorker by Adam Gopnik