I like the New York Times Magazine’s “Letter of Recommendation” column. It’s enjoyable to read a brief explanation of someone’s peculiar passion, and I’m always quick to give the disclaimer, “but for the record I do actually love the concept of ‘Letter of Recommendation,’” any time I’m in the process of talking shit about a particular entry. In an internet full of exhausting essays that I hate, “Letter of Recommendation” provides the space for something that does not make me want to die. Or at least it used to.
The “Letter of Recommendation” headline format used to be like this: “Letter of Recommendation: Gyms”; “Letter of Recommendation: Dog Tricks”; “Letter of Recommendation: Washing Dishes.” Quick, simple, and charming. Confident, really. If you’re going to have 750 overwrought words about something modest, it makes sense to balance it out with a rightfully utilitarian headline.
In April 2020, “Letter of Recommendation” abandoned their standard headline format for shit like this: “The Valet and Drifter Helping Me Get Through Quarantine”; “How Garfield Helped Me Make Peace With a Culture in Decline.” I’m sorry but are you absolutely fucking kidding me. “Online Security Questions Are Not Very Effective. I Still Love Them.” I am sinking into a grave. “Covid Closed Theaters. But It Also Made Them Accessible.” How am I supposed to even know that is a letter of recommendation?????
(A recent exception was Kristen Radtke’s missive about gossip, graciously given the headline “Letter of Recommendation: Gossip.” I don’t know how she pulled it off, but I applaud her.)
Now the “Letter of Recommendation” column is no longer a collection of charming essays about unexpected joys. It is no longer honest about its modest goal. It is a collection of exhausting personal essays attempting to project unnecessary gravitas onto ordinary things — the exact sort of essay from which the internet is already suffocating. It is off-putting. It is revoltingly modern. It is a gin martini with, for some reason now, sour mix. No, the headline does not change the content of the letters, but it changes the experience. It changes the lens from which we view the content of the letters. I guess a more apt comparison would be a gin martini in just like ... some cup. Gross.
I liked it better when it was the other way. So, please change it back.