December 1, 2012
My first dog was a golden retriever named Tisha. Tisha was quiet and friendly, a perfect golden for a 4-year-old boy; my mother swears that when we took her to the vet one last time, as the dog lay dying on the operating table, Tisha lifted her head at the sound of my voice, though I doubt this actually happened. My next dog, the dog that I remember best, was an Irish setter named Hombre. I would wrap him in a blanket and drag him around the house and he loved it.
Hombre once leaped through a picture window, cutting himself and knocking himself cold. When he died, long after I left for college, he was replaced by a massive sheepdog named Shakespeare; my mother named him that because the "Beethoven" movies were popular at the time. He lived for a long time but my grandmother habitually fed him corn flakes which likely didn't help his life span. The last dog my family owned, they owned briefly: A neighbor with cancer asked my mother to take her dog. The dog was named Cheyenne, then later renamed Diane by my mother for vague reasons. Diane had health problems that my mother didn't know about before agreeing to take her. Diane lived only a few months and was loved, despite having a congenital cough reminiscent of a dying Teamster.
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I mention this for a reason.
During the week I spent pawing, sniffing and circling "The Big New Yorker Book of Dogs," the fantastic new coffee table compilation of dog journalism, dog fiction, dog art, dog poetry, dog photography and dog cartoons that have run throughout the 87-year history of the magazine, I thought hard about these dogs. Each — gentle, manic, devoted, doomed — is well represented in its pages. More impressively, each is honored by a book that largely avoids the self-congratulatory sentimentality that infects a typical dog book.
Unless, of course, you're also reading that other new, startlingly clear-eyed view of the canine: "What's a Dog For?" by John Homans, the longtime executive editor of New York magazine, who chose for his first book a bluntly titled, occasionally engaging, knowledgeable, at times terrific history of the bond between man and pet. Frankly, Homans, always a little too blank faced with animals — his own dog, Stella, is the personality-free vehicle through which talk of anthropomorphizing and training (and so forth) gets filtered — is much better with people. The book consistently sparks to life only when he's digging into Darwin's relationship with dogs, the contradictions of animal activists, Viennese researchers into canine cognition.
Who's an ambivalent boy?
I am! I am!
However unfair the comparison — Homans alone is powerless alongside a volume boasting A.J. Liebling, Susan Orlean, Ian Frazier, James Thurber, Arthur Miller, John Updike, E.B. White, Donald Barthelme, Charles Addams, Malcolm Gladwell (and on and on and on) — none of that feet-dragging can be found in the rightfully, playfully titled "Big New Yorker Book of Dogs," which is a good boy, a good, good boy, aren't you? Weeks after I had plowed through every page, I was still coming back, finding bites of things under the sofa: One of the best surprises, presumably a reminder even the best writers need to get their noses rubbed in their messes: Original, heavily marked-up drafts are occasionally run along the polished versions.
But then, like a lively dog happy to please, rarely sleepy and almost never sour — like no dog, in other words — "The Big New Yorker Book of Dogs" has the feel of a delightful chore, one that, particularly when it's running full steam with Orlean, Thurber and the excellent Ben McGrath, is no chore at all. The material, broken into categories — "Good Dog," "Bad Dog," "Top Dog," miscellanea titled "Underdogs" — lends itself to the wry and wryly morose, though not always light. That old-school suffocating New Yorker sense of taste occasionally intrudes on the fun: As hard as it is to argue with Adam Gopnik's bracing, brief history of our attraction to dogs — truthfully, he accomplishes in 11 pages what it takes Homans 234 pages to say — it reads at times like the memoir of a man so snobbishly removed from everyday affection he could be a cat.
In fact, now that I notice Gopnik's piece comes immediately after the moving Thurber classic "Snapshot of a Dog" — I read this 400-page doorstop randomly and spontaneously, the way it insists — never mind: It's a splash of cold water following a dish of warm milk. It also feels nitpicky to find an occasional damp spot in a book that pairs a grippingly odd T. Coraghessan Boyle short story with a William Wegman dog photo; a Gladwell essay about pit bull trouble with a cartoon pit bull (standing in a police line-up) from Jules Feiffer.
If there's a unifying theme, it's not a surprising one: Dogs think they're people; moreover, New Yorker writers think dogs are people. Also, people — as Jim Shepard's great story about a no-kill shelter makes plain — are not without guile. But dogs may be. Susan Orlean starts a piece with "If I were a bitch, I'd be in love with Biff Truesdale," as in a show dog. Though the joke is silly, infectious joy like that is hard to stop itching: dog parks, dog walks, dogs lost, dogs found, dog shows, dog stars, drug-sniffing dogs, dog trainers, nice dogs.
Christopher Borrelli is an entertainment reporter for the Chicago Tribune.
"The Big New Yorker Book of Dogs"
By The New Yorker magazine, Random House, 416 pages, $45
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