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Gregory McNamee

Gregory McNamee is the author or title-page editor of forty books. He is a contributing editor to the Encyclopaedia Britannica and to Kirkus Reviews.

Author

Is It Just, or Is It Fair? [private]

Fall 2017 | Articles

The book of Kings tells that the mothers of two newborns approached Solomon, that wise ruler, to settle a dispute. One of the babies had died, and each woman insisted that she was the mother of the survivor.

Illustration by Lauren Simkin Berke

Sport vs. Game

Summer 2017 | Essays

Toward the end of the film version of Peter Gent’s corrosively sarcastic football yarn North Dallas Forty, a lineman played by real-life gridiron hero John Matuszak throws a fit upon hearing one more you’re-not-worthy upbraiding from a sniveling, corporate-minded coach. “To you it’s just a business, but to us it’s still gotta be a sport,” he shouts. “Every time I call it a game you call it a business, and every time I call it a business you call it a game!”

Of Sanctuary, Refuge, Migrants, and Refugees

Spring 2017 | Essays

At the end of 2015, according to statistics gathered by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, more than 65 million people worldwide were forcibly displaced from their homes—displaced by war, famine, ethnic strife, religious violence, poverty, climate change. Of them, 21.3 million were classified as refugees, 4.9 million from Syria alone. And of all those 21.3 million, only 107,100 were resettled elsewhere that same year—a tiny fraction of a huge population in flight.

North and Norths, True and Otherwise

Winter 2017 | Essays

If I move a block of stone into the green-wood sector of the bagua, will my children grow up to be dull? If I put my desk next to a window, will my thoughts become insipid? Where is the dragon sleeping? Practitioners of feng shui, the Chinese art of geomancy, worry about such things—and not least whether in calculating the most propitious placement of a building, the orientation should be to magnetic north or to true north.

North, to a proto-Indo-European traversing the steppes a few thousand years back, was simply the direction the left hand pointed in when one faced the rising sun, a position that changed throughout the year. Our notion of north is based on a finer but still inexact science, its core assumption that we live on a perfect orb that spins along at a uniform rate. We do not, and it does not. Still, true north is a geometric concept that posits a line, a meridian, wrapping neatly around the planet. Also called geodetic north, it is constant to the extent that, for our lifetimes, it points pretty much toward Polaris, our North Star for the next few thousand years.

Of Movements, Rebellions & Revolutions

Fall 2016 | Essays

A revolution is an opinion that has got its hands on some bayonets. So said Napoleon Bonaparte, who knew about such things. Fair enough: Throughout history, most revolutions have been brought about at the point of a spear or the end of a gun barrel—for, Mohandas Gandhi and Václav Havel notwithstanding, violence often precedes political change.

Hair vs. Fur

Summer 2016 | Essays

“Adam catched Eve by the fur below,” goes an old English song from the swampy fens of Norfolk, “and that’s the oldest catch I know.” The ditty may not be suitable for work or for younger audiences, but it points to a tricky matter of trichoid distinction: namely, the finer-than-frog’s-hair distinction between hair and fur.

Of Marsupials and Placentals

Summer 2016 | Essays

Why are there no giant tree-climbing, carnivorous kangaroos in the stately magnolias and maples of Central Park?

It’s a question of what might have been. To be fair, those lethal hoppers—called marsupial lions, less for their gross anatomy than for their sharp teeth—have been absent from Australia for 40,000 years, too. Gone are their giraffe-like cousins, which browsed on the branches of eucalyptus trees. Gone are the giant-fanged sparassodonts of South America. Gone is Thylacosmilus, the saber-toothed opossum, which weighed about as much as the average American male today—a lot, in other words.

Illustration by Angela Cockayne

Of Hounds and Dogs

Summer 2016 | Essays


All hounds are dogs. All dogs are not hounds, a fact for which dog trainers everywhere are no doubt grateful.

Every one of the world’s 400 dog breeds has its origins in Canis lupus, the wolf, domesticated on the trash middens of the ancient world, their archetype not the wolf but something like the ur-dogs that inhabit the landfills and industrial edgelands of the world today: small, scruffy, tan.

Humans and Canis lupus, in its familiaris form, have thus been together for thousands of years. In that time humans have tinkered, as they have with other plants and animals around them, to make dogs more useful. Five thousand–odd years ago, the Egyptians bred something like the greyhound. At about that time, far away on the islands recently separated from the European mainland by rising seas that inundated the aptly named Doggerland, ancestral Britons were breeding familiaris for guarding livestock and hunting.


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Wild vs. Natural

Summer 2016 | Essays

Ah, wilderness. The very word means“the place of wild animals.” It’s a place where, by definition, as my friend the grizzly bear expert Doug Peacock says, something in it can kill you and eat you. Absent that danger, it’s something other than wild.

Wilderness is the stuff of a structuralist’s binary dreams, opposed to civilization, its antithesis and enemy. But, in truth, the wild is an invention of civilization: We recognize that the wild is wild only because we know what houses, fields, orchards, and gardens look like, the one part of our world behaving by its own rules, the other ordered by the hard work of human hands.

On Vonnegut’s Karass vs. Granfalloon

Spring 2016 | Essays

Last summer, I traveled to Northern Virginia to attend the fortieth reunion of my high-school class. As I entered the hotel ballroom and surveyed the scene, a couple of questions inevitably came to mind: “Who are all these old people?” “Where are my people?”

House vs. Home

Winter 2016 | Essays

A house is not a home. It is but a pile of sticks. “‘Home is,” on the other hand, as Robert Frost famously said, “the place where, when you have to go there, / They have to take you in.’” Less well known, and more resonant, are the words that follow: “‘I should have called it / Something you somehow haven’t to deserve.’”

Raven vs. Crow

Fall 2015 | Essays

"Quoth the Raven, ‘Nevermore.’” Quoth the raven. Why not quoth the curlew? Quoth the grackle? Quoth the—well, the crow?

 

Science Fiction vs. Fantasy

Summer 2015 | Essays

Whereas the proto–science fiction of a century past (H. G. Wells, Octavia E. Butler, Edgar Rice Burroughs) looked to a bright if complex future, we can now scarcely imagine one that’s not irredeemably awful. 

The Southwesternization of the American Palate

June 17, 2015 | Essays

Barrow, Alaska, is about as far from anywhere in North America as it’s possible to get: hard by the Beaufort Sea, 720 miles from Anchorage, 3,500 miles from Washington, DC, 1,100 miles from the North Pole. Yet, until very recently, it was possible to stumble across taiga and tundra and find, there in the heart of the town, a Mexican restaurant.

Jelly vs. Jam

Spring 2015 | Essays

If there is an epicene, all-encompassing term for the shivering, shimmering stuff with which we adorn sandwiches, toast, and other baked goods, then it is not “jam,” not “conserves,” not “preserves,” not “fruit spread” or “spreadable fruit,” but “jelly.”

Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld, Expulsion of Adam and Eve From the Garden of Eden, 1860.

Shame vs. Guilt

Winter 2015 | Essays

You borrow a book from a friend, knowing full well that you’ll never return it. You sleep with another friend’s spouse. You drink too much at a party, then drive home, merrily exceeding the speed limit.

Talent vs. Genius

Fall 2014 | Essays

He is not much read today, but when his book Talents and Geniuses appeared in 1957, the exemplary public intellectual Gilbert Highet could count on two things.

Solstice vs. Equinox

Summer 2014 | Essays

When it comes to the workings of the universe, Albert Einstein famously said, “God does not play dice.” Einstein said nothing about the dreidel, however, which may explain why Earth and the other planets in our solar system spin like tops, a touch wobbly but more or less self-​correcting, whirling about in space toward whatever bang or whimper the future has in store.