Editor's Note — March 15, 2019, 7:34 am

Inside the April Issue

Christian Lorentzen on the decline of book reviewing; Rachel Nolan on the troubled legacy of Guatemalan adoptions; Lisa Wells on the fear of flying

Christian Lorentzen was New York magazine’s lead book critic until last fall, when the magazine told him that his contract would not be renewed, because what he did had “little value.” New York still planned to cover books; they just wanted to do it with fewer reviews. Rankings, celebrity Q&As, chirpy tidbits that are easy to share on Twitter: these are what generate clicks, and clicks are where the “value” is for most publishers these days. Even the New York Times endeavors to cover books in a manner more in line with BuzzFeed than the London Review of Books. In our April cover story, “Like This or Die,” Lorentzen ponders the sorry fate of the book review in the age of the algorithm. Readers deserve better. So do writers, as the celebrated short-story writer David Means beautifully illustrates in an essay that lets us in on the conversations—running the gamut from grandiose to tortured—that writers have with themselves as they put words on the page. Means charts the convoluted paths that lead to characters and stories that are worthy of an audience, not to mention thoughtful critical consideration.

The modern world has placed so many cheerful distractions within arm’s reach that we need never entertain thoughts of a cheerless modern death. Over the past century, as our computers have gotten smaller, the array of life-prolonging medical interventions has expanded. We die in corporatized hospitals, dehumanized, enduring increasingly baroque procedures. “Though treated with great skill and effectiveness, you can still be harmed,” John Crowley writes in “Works of Mercy.” “You can call it trauma, but it’s harm to the spirit and needs spiritual care.” Crowley speaks to those (mostly women) whose vocation is to provide the care that doctors and nurses cannot. Some are religious, but they are not interested in pushing any doctrine or afterlife scenario; their mission is “to leave the ones they attend with the space they need to make their own meaning out of life and death.”

“One can spend a whole life talking about death, simply by avoiding the subject,” writes Lisa Wells in “Nightmares at 20,000 Feet.” Like many of us, Wells finds herself particularly compelled to confront death’s inevitability whenever she boards an airplane, with only a sterile passenger-safety booklet for an advocate. She finds our collective unwillingness to face the fear of death as terrifying as the language that airlines deploy to describe a crash. “We know the vessel only travels one direction, though we try hard not to know it,” she writes, “but who can resist looking down?”

The UK Parliament has just rejected Theresa May’s second attempt at a Brexit deal. Here in the East Coast bubble, where we remain convinced of the European Union’s inherent goodness, many commentators express hope that the impasse will lead to another referendum. Lionel Shriver, an American who resides in London, doesn’t think the solution is all that obvious. In “No Exit,” she argues in favor of Brexit based on one simple fact: the British people voted to leave. To call another vote merely because the people chose incorrectly the first time would be antidemocratic. But the conundrum of Brexit leaves even Shriver unsure of her convictions. “As I’ve watched Brexit grind on,” she writes, “what seems increasingly at stake is whether democracy pays off.”

Until the country banned them in 2008, Guatemala was one of the largest sources of foreign adoptions to the United States and Western Europe. While the Western media told heart-warming stories of impoverished children given new opportunities, the reality was often quite a bit darker. Many babies were stolen from their mothers; other pregnant women were pressured or deceived by “pullers” (who worked with adoption lawyers) to give their newborns up for adoption. Lax oversight and a complicit government allowed a quiet genocide of poor, rural, indigenous people. Rachel Nolan follows one Guatemalan adoptee, Jean-Sebastien Hertsens Zune, who went in search of his birth parents and found instead the man who trafficked him. Zune is part of a wave of adult adoptees who are returning to Guatemala to face disconcerting revelations about their pasts.

Returning to literary matters, Harper’s Magazine’s devotion to books and fiction remains strong. We are especially humbled to have in this issue “Setting the World to Rights,” a short story by Amos Oz, the great Israeli writer who died last December, as well as an excerpt from a new translation of Clarice Lispector’s third novel, The Besieged City. Our robust and regular book-review section this month includes Garry Wills on Mary Gordon’s biography of Thomas Merton and Francine Prose on the modern tragedies of Christos Ikonomou.

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More from Ellen Rosenbush:

Editor's Note February 14, 2019, 2:32 pm

Inside the March Issue

Andrew Cockburn on Joe Biden’s disastrous legislative legacy; James Pogue on the myth of white genocide in South Africa; Sallie Tisdale on species in conflict on the Columbia River

Editor's Note January 10, 2019, 1:44 pm

Inside the February Issue

Kishore Mahbubani on the nonexistent China threat; Matthew Wolfe follows a search for a missing migrant; Ann Neumann asks if homicides among the elderly are acts of mercy or malice

Editor's Note December 13, 2018, 2:10 pm

Inside the January Issue

Fred Turner explains how the internet subverts democracy; Michel Houellebecq admires Donald Trump; Barry Lopez reports from Antartica

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Works of Mercy

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Five years ago, Jean-Sebastien Hertsens Zune went looking for his parents. He already had one set, a Belgian church organist and his wife, who adopted him as a baby from Guatemala and later moved the family to France. But he wanted to find his birth mother and father. When Zune was a teenager, his Belgian parents gave him his adoption file, holding back only receipts showing how much the process had cost. Most people pay little attention to their birth certificates, but for adoptees, these documents, along with notes about their relinquishment, tell an often patchy origin story.

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Alex and Wendy love culture. It’s how they spend their free time. It’s what they talk about at dinner parties. When they go jogging or to the gym, they listen to podcasts on their phones. On Sunday nights they watch their favorite new shows. They go to the movies sometimes, but they were bummed out when ­MoviePass went south, so now they mostly stream things. They belong to book clubs that meet every couple of weeks. Alex and Wendy work hard at their jobs, but they always have a bit of time to check their feeds at work. What’s in their feeds? Their feeds tell them about culture. Their feeds are a form of comfort. Their feeds explain things to them that they already understand. Their feeds tell them that everyone else is watching, reading, listening to the same things. Their feeds tell them about the people who make their culture, people who aren’t so different from them, just maybe a bit more glistening. Alex and Wendy’s feeds assure them that they aren’t lonely. Their feeds give them permission to like what they already like. Their feeds let them know that their culture is winning.

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Once, in an exuberant state, feeling filled with the muse, I told another writer: When I write, I know everything. Everything about the characters? she asked. No, I said, everything about the world, the universe. Every. Fucking. Thing. I was being preposterous, of course, but I was also trying to explain the feeling I got, deep inside writing a first draft, that I was listening and receiving, listening some more and receiving, from a place that was far enough away from my daily life, from all of my reading, from everything.

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“I can’t take chances with my life.”

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All his life he lived on hatred.

He was a solitary man who hoarded gloom. At night a thick smell filled his bachelor’s room on the edge of the kibbutz. His sunken, severe eyes saw shapes in the dark. The hater and his hatred fed on each other. So it has ever been. A solitary, huddled man, if he does not shed tears or play the violin, if he does not fasten his claws in other people, experiences over the years a constantly mounting pressure, until he faces a choice between lunacy and suicide. And those who live around him breathe a sigh of relief.

Cost of renting a giant panda from the Chinese government, per day:

$1,500

A recent earthquake in Chile was found to have shifted the city of Concepción ten feet to the west, shortened Earth’s days by 1.26 microseconds, and shifted the planet’s axis by nearly three inches.

“I think we need to make it a lot less fun to be here, unfortunately,” offered John Elizabeth Alemán, Miami Beach Commissioner, while discussing spring-break-related crimes.

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