A New Yorker writer once told me of her initiation into the her employer's hallowed realm. This involved being taken into a sacred-sounding room lined with binder-filled shelves. These held all articles ever printed in the New Yorker, bound by contributor. Some of the magazine's superstars took up predictably vast stretches of shelf space; the sections of other famous names exposed them as surprisingly un-prolific.
But I found most haunting her description of the rows and rows of volumes filled by writers that not only didn't she know of, but nobody in the office seemed to remember. I fear that one of my favorite writers of place — and indeed one of my favorite writers of any any kind — despite his eight books and 64 long-form New Yorker essays, has met with such a fate.
His name was Christopher Rand. He wrote for the New Yorker from 1947 until his death in 1968, covering in those pieces and in his books the same territories: that is to say, the same geographical territories, which spanned from San Francisco to Hong Kong to Salisbury to Bethlehem to Cambridge to the Himalayas to Greece to Los Angeles, all of which he made a point of exploring on foot, and in so doing saw with uncommonly clear eyes.
That last city made the connection between me and Rand. In my initial eagerness to read everything written about Los Angeles, where I live, I combed even the online archives of that most east coast-centric magazine for material. There I found "The Ultimate City", Rand's 1966 trilogy of articles on Los Angeles that would, the following year, become the book of the same name.
You can still read everything Rand wrote for the New Yorker at the magazine's site, albeit behind a paywall. Embedded at the top of this post, you'll find his 1962 book Grecian Calendar (now out of print, alas, like all his work), made free to read and downloadable at the Internet Archive.
Rand's incisive observations of Greece, Los Angeles, and everywhere else he went lead me to write "The Consummate Writer of Place: Christopher Rand in Los Angeles, China, and Beyond, 1943-1968," a profile of his career for the Los Angeles Review of Books. In it, I quote from Grecian Calendar the writer's explanation for his love of walking, which I think encapsulates his sensibility as well as anything:
I have walked a good deal for years now. I have theories about why one should do it — that it is good for the health, is conducive to thought, makes one able to observe things close at hand, etc. — and I think all these arguments are sound, but the main point is simply that I enjoy walking; I feel calm and happy while doing it. I claim that if one walks with any gusto one is respected by other walkers, and I even boast that it is a good thing, nationalistically, to have a few Americans walking about in far countries. It explodes the generalization that we have forgotten how.
Just as walking has made something of a comeback in the 35 years since, I hope for Rand to make a comeback through the many words he left behind. And if his books get reprinted, I call dibs on writing their forewords.
Grecian Calendar [Archive.org]