Classic Gopnik

In the latest issue of the Ryerson Review of JournalismMatthew Braga profiles Adam Gopnik and explains why The New Yorker essayist aspires to be the “rococo, Jewish, city-bound, Canadian E.B. White.”


In the latest issue of the Ryerson Review of JournalismMatthew Braga profiles Adam Gopnik and explains why The New Yorker essayist aspires to be the “rococo, Jewish, city-bound, Canadian E.B. White.”


Profiling New Yorker essayist and author Adam Gopnik seemed simple enough in theory. He would be making a number of stops through Toronto—first, for the Massey Lecture series, and later, for a tour of his new book. Failing that, he lived in New York, which was a paltry 12 hour bus ride away. I actually made the trip in early September—on a visit to The New Yorker offices to speak with his editor—and secretly hoped to catch Gopnik while there. But it was all for naught. 

Much to my surprise, the easiest—and earliest—interview I set up was with Gopnik's New Yorker colleague and friend Malcolm Gladwell. I assumed he would be virtually unreachable, having achieved best-selling author status on a mainstream scale. However, following a brief email exchange, Gladwell and I spoke on the phone the very next day as he sat in a taxi en route to some hotel. The interview was invaluable, but he also offered a piece of advice that, at the time, I sorely needed to hear: don't give up.

Adam and I did eventually meet. But for months, I operated under the assumption that we wouldn't. And in the process, I came to understand that a good profile relies on more than just the subject, but the background interviews, endless research and myriad minutiae a writer gathers along the way. —M.B.



And so, after five years in France, it came time for Adam Gopnik to leave. As The New Yorker's Paris correspondent, he'd covered the trial of a former secretary-general for complicity in war crimes during the Nazi occupation and the media circus that ensued ("a kind of O.J. trial, without television or a glove"). He'd spoken with chefs on the state of haute cuisine and watched the city shut down as mailmen and metro workers went on strike. His journalism was good, but his personal essays on foreign culture—the comedies of difference between Paris and New York City life—were especially well received.

The local gym was a far cry from its American counterpart, it turned out. A single weekly visit was considered disciplined. In "The Rookie," he'd tried to explain baseball to his son, Luke—there were, understandably, few local teams—mythologizing its rules and rivalries for added amusement. And in a recurring Gopnik theme, he would visit Luxembourg Gardens, with its carousels and puppet shows, relics of old-world living. "You grasp more of French life by seeing how they birth a baby than by following election returns," he explained. Paris to the Moon, a collection from his five-year correspondence, is now an international bestseller.

But in 2000, it was time to go home. He and his wife had a newborn daughter, and the couple wanted to send their son to a New York school. Meanwhile, Gopnik had grown wary of repeating himself. "Your readers know it even if they can't put their finger on what it is," he says. "The moment I thought self-consciously about how I would engineer a little comedy of difference"—learning how to drive, for example—"that's shtick."

When the 55-year-old author and essayist writes about himself, he's not really the subject. We don't read Adam Gopnik to hear about him, but to hear from him—what he thinks and how the world looks through his eyes. His comic sentimental essays are not merely inward-looking observations; he avoids self-indulgence in pursuit of a greater truth. He excels at this style of writing—and yet, he is ready to move on. His children are getting older, their experiences no longer his to share. And so he writes about them less. Where he once documented the death of his daughter's fish or his young son's linguistic errors, he now draws connections between Darwin and Lincoln instead. And just as he left Paris, in part, fearful of shtick, he'd rather not be typecast as the man who primarily writes about his kids.

In the prime of his career, he no longer hesitates to call himself an essayist, and has set his sights on a higher standard defined by The New Yorker's early literary greats—a difficult goal for any writer to achieve. His focus has shifted to grander, more humanist subjects, from information overload to the history of romanticized winter. But in becoming an old-school essayist, there is certainly an element of risk. On the one hand, readers are enthusiastic about long-form writing again in a way that no one could have predicted. Online sites such as Longreads exist for the sole purpose of finding the best in-depth stories on the web. On the other, a declining print industry means smaller budgets and fewer features, things once in abundance for essayists of old. And perhaps most importantly, there is no guarantee that new readers will take to Gopnik's style, or that it will succeed in any enduring way. But if a classical revival is what Gopnik wants, there might not be a better time than now. 

To read the rest of Braga's profile of Gopnik, head over to the Review's website