Thursday, March 7, 2013
A Tribute to Our Embattled Magazines
The e-revolution has threatened the printed word like nothing else. Book publishing is in a tailspin, newspapers are slashing their operations, and now many venerable magazines are either hemorrhaging money or going bust. I've been quite alarmed at how people who see themselves as electronic sophisticates are taking such a dismissive stance at this change, gloating as if they have somehow "won" by being a part of the cyberworld. (The way that the Dailykos site has long crowed about the decline of newspapers, which do actual hard reporting, rather than mere news aggregation and opinion flogging, has long irritated me. Are any "Kossacks" going to report on world events from Greece or Syria?)
Thinking about the decline of traditional magazines, as inevitable as that might be, fills me with sadness, for magazines played an important role in my education. Growing up in an isolated small town on the Great Plains, magazines were one of the few quality conduits I had to the outside world. The local newspapers were painfully parochial, local radio middle of the road, TV as vapid as ever, and the internet but a dream.
So much of my cultural development came with the help of the glossy pages of magazine. Quite often I walked down to the local Walgreens to pick up a copy of Spin and Rolling Stone, and read about music that I had no chance of hearing where I lived. During school band or debate trips to bigger cities like Lincoln or Omaha, I would break away from the main group during our meal times so I could go to the record store and buy up albums that got good reviews. (Either the music journalist seal of approval or hearing underground songs via 120 Minutes on MTV determined much of my music purchasing.) I bought Pavement's epochal Slanted and Enchanted purely because Spin had named it album of the year for 1992. Until I popped the cassette into the tape deck of my Mazda, I hadn't heard a note of Pavement's music.
Despite the help they gave me in developing music taste in a cultural wasteland during my high school days, magazines actually did the most good for me when I was a pimple-faced middle schooler. Back in those days I would take a short walk to the public library after school, and wait for my parents to get off of work and pick me up. I spent that time in the library sitting on the couches in the magazine section, reading practically anything I could get my hands on. The issues were all ensconced in little plastic binders, like semi-sacred objects. Each week I read the big three news mags (Time, Newsweek, and US News and World Report), Sport magazine (I had a subscription to Sports Illustrated, so I read that at home), Rolling Stone, and whatever political magazine caught my eye, usually either The National Review or The New Republic. (My politics weren't fully formed yet.) All of this magazine reading gave me a tremendous amount of background knowledge about the world, and certainly sparked my interest in all kinds of topics in the years to come. I kept up my habit of reading the news magazines in high school, and added The Economist to the rotation when I hit college, along with forays into The Nation, The Utne Reader, and The New Yorker. As a college student, I rewarded myself after studying in the library with some magazine time. When I spent my year abroad in Germany, my girlfriend at the time sent me her back issues of The Nation, which I cherished.
Those adolescent afternoon hours spent reading magazines in the public library after school may have done more to hone my mind and engender my intellectual curiosity than anything else in my life. These days I have a New Yorker subscription, and whenever I get the chance, I like to go to the bookstore and buy a couple of magazines. What many of these publications do, like the Oxford American or Weird N.J., can't really be replicated on the computer screen, their combinations of text and visuals only work when you hold them in your hand. And, truth be told, because magazines are edited, the writing is of better quality than most of the stuff put out on the web, including this blog, which would not exist had I not spent those two years immersed in magazines.
Footnote: I idolized Nirvana as a teenager, and when they finally landed on the cover of the Rolling Stone, I cut the cover out and taped it to the closet door in my room. That image (pasted above) gave me the strength to be a weird, passionate person in a school full of conformists.