The New Yorker

This week's issue of the The New Yorker has ''Fresh Prince," a deliciously quirky piece that alone is worth the price of admission. Written by Nick Paumgarten, the article discusses Robert Greene and his bestselling book from 1998, The 48 Laws of Power. With its aphoristic bent and graphic advice on enemy-crushing, the book has quietly become the Bible of the hip-hop community.

Busta Rhymes, for example, is one guy who already lives by it. (Particularly Law 2: ''Never put too much trust in friends, learn how to use enemies") and Law 10 ("Avoid the unhappy and the unlucky.") Rhymes says that the book has been so helpful to him that ''I felt like I had some Deep Sea scroll or some shit." In fact, rappers are so into Greene's tome that they regularly try to arrange meetings with the author, who is now busy advising Microsoft and ''would like to be the Karl Rove of the Democratic Party." The piece chronicles one dazzlingly awkward hook-up, between Green (''a somewhat geeky guy" who relies on the teachings of Machiavelli, Sun Tzu, and Moses) and 50 Cent (''the rapper and former crack dealer who wants to collaborate with Green on a street version of The 48 Laws.")

Paumgarten points out that Greene, with this and his other books (The Art of Seduction, The 33 Strategies of War), ''basically tells you how to be a creep, albeit a happy and successful one.''

Americans have always been suckers for books on power, from Napoleon Hill's Think and Grow Rich to the Trumpster 's many super-duper-mega-quality volumes. But is it really possible to put together a code of universal procedures for advancement? The producer and designer of the book, Joost Elfers, says ''It's about intimidation. It's about the numbness of people who go to meetings.''

There's an equally odd and charming piece by Jill Lepore about the lexicographer Noah Webster, a man who worked alone, unnumbed, for twenty years, literally turning circles inside the hole of his doughnut-shaped desk, consulting volumes of dictionaries of some twenty languages. I would guess he was not much good at meetings.

''Outside his family," Lepore writes, ''nearly everyone who knew him found him insufferable, and strangers who thought they admired him usually didn't: they'd mistaken him for another Webster. (If he had published an autobiography, it would have been called I Am Not Daniel!)''

When Webster first floated the proposal for a dictionary of the American, rather than English, language in 1820, he was drubbed by the critics, who thought the Americanisms were vulgarisms, ''a disgusting collection of idiotic words" (such as ''wigwam" and ''lengthy.'')

By the time the dictionary was published, populism was on the rise-- and with it the love of the words of the common man--so the book became revered.

There's a pile-up of smartly written back-of-the-book reviews: ''It Ain't Him, Babe" sums up all you need to know in Joan Acocella's critique of Twyla Tharp's new Broadway musical, featuring the greatest hits of Bob Dylan. In a review of the Brice Marden retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, art critic Peter Schjeldahl explains his style as '' passive expressive.''

''Listen to the kissing" writes John Lane, in a movie review of ''Volver," the new film from Pedro Almodovar. ''The director has outgrown his early, or 'horny as a bullfighter,' period, so the kisses are no longer driven by lust. Instead, we have a gaggle of women, young and old, exchanging pecks on the cheek--the mildest of greetings, except that they sound like rifle shots. Close your eyes and you could be watching 'The Wild Bunch.'"

One of the reasons I usually find the magazine so guilt-inducing is that faced with so much tiny type, I usually just let my New Yorkers pile-up. For some reason, this issue sizzles--or maybe it's that the pieces seem a tad more digestible, and a slightly shorter length? From explaining the art of the kiss-up (or the freeze-out) to analyzing ''pecks that sound like rifle shots,'' the issue is clearly sterling. Which brings me back to Law of Power Number One: Never outshine the master. And clearly, The New Yorker is still the master.

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