The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom. - Wm. Blake

Friday, January 20, 2006

OK, maybe I'm just being an architect about this, but....

I think Timothy Noah's critique of the Times piece on Susan Orlean's country house is off-base in almost every particular. I mean aside from just a general faux-egalitarian tendency (it's OK to have really nice stuff, but pretend you don't - for the sake of the little people!), he seems to swing and miss on each of his main points:

1. Orleans, as a journalist, needs the "ability to identify with the ordinary people about whom one is called upon, at least once in a while, to write." But Orleans isn't a journalist as such. She's a magazine writer. If Orleans were a beat reporter in the Bronx (or Columbia County, where the house is, for that matter), this might be an issue. But if the Capote showed us anything, it's that getting into people's heads and telling their stories compellingly doesn't necessarily have anything to do with material or cultural cues.

2. Orleans, as a journalist, should "show less inclination to flaunt privilege." Setting aside the profession issue raised above, the article makes clear where the money's coming from - her insurance exec husband. Indeed, if anything, she's living a standard fairy tale - hard worker swept off her feet by Prince Charming. This isn't Tim Russert taking his NBC millions and buying a place on the Vineyard - it's someone who (if you don't consider her a gold-digger) hit the jackpot, falling in love with someone of means. Big Deal.

3. She's falsely modest, wanting a house "that felt spacious but wasn't pointlessly huge," but what she really has is "a house that (including land) cost more than $2 million." And here's where I really call Bullshit. What number is missing from this recitation? Size. Size of the land and size of the house. She has 2,700 square feet on 55 acres less than 2 hours from NYC. Gracious living no doubt, but we're talking about a house that is all of 6% bigger than the median new house in the Northeast. It's expensive because it's nice - it's well-designed. But it is very reasonably sized. Of course, Noah didn't mention square footage, because he couldn't - it punches a hole in his insinuation that Orlean is living like Maria Antoinette.

If Orlean had done the typical thing, she could have built 5,000 square feet for a typical price and had a million dollar home - which is a lot, but not exactly impressive in this market. It would have been much more indulgent, profligate, and pointless - but it wouldn't get Noah saying "she has lost her mind."



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