Sunday, January 28, 2024

The Glory of Magazines

I was recently in New York with my children. At one point they asked to go a newsstand to see if they had a copy of the Taylor Swift cover of Time magazine (my daughters are dedicated Swifties.) It struck me in that moment that magazines occupied a very different place in their life than mine, more collectors' items than an essential part of life. 

I owe a lot of who I am to magazines. For years people would compliment me on my the breadth of my knowledge and my ability to recall random facts. I am less impressed by this than others, but I learned a lot of this stuff from being an avid magazine reader in my youth. In junior high I would walk to the public library every day after school and just raid the magazine section, which was the part of the library where I would wait to get picked up. I was not too discriminating. I read Time the most since it was the consensus news magazine at the time, but dipped a toe in Newsweek and US News. I would get intrigued by both The New Republic and The National Review, unaware of their rival ideological perspectives. In a lighter mood, I would peruse People and Life.

At home I had a prized subscription to Sports Illustrated. It gave me a far deeper understanding of the sporting world than I was getting from my daily doses of Sportscenter. I got it every Thursday, the same day my sisters and I went to piano lessons. I always finished first, then would sit on my teacher's basement floor and read the magazine. It was always such a welcome moment of solitude and discovery. At the public library I would branch out and read the now defunct Sport and Inside Sports (for some reason there was no Sporting News.) I also had a subscription to MAD magazine, a publication that greatly attuned my young bullshit detector and allowed me to look at my surroundings with a clearer eye. 

Magazines served me well later in life, too. In high school I would scour the reviews in the back of Spin magazine and use them as a guide to find the kind of indie rock albums they did not play on the radio in my neck of the woods. As a college student I did competitive debate, and to prepared by reading as much of The Economist as I could. In my off hours between classes I would go to the campus library and pick up and read magazines, recreating those middle school moments. Afterwards I had low wage jobs as a gas station and library clerk, and in both cases reading magazines at the counter helped me pass the time in that pre-cell phone world. Once I had my first real job and could afford creature comforts I immediately subscribed to the New York Review of Books and the New Yorker. As often as I could, I would pick up issues of Mojo and Uncut at the bookstore. Some of them were so dense with insights that I've held on to them through multiple decades and moves. 

Magazines have alas fallen on hard times. There's talk that Sports Illustrated will soon be dead after years on life support. Newsweek's new ownership has ties to a cult. It's also been interesting to see that we just can't give them up. When Time announced Taylor Swift as their Person of the Year it dominated public discourse for days after. Evidently the editorial decisions made by magazines still matter to people, even if they were not as seismic as Time's "Is God Dead?" cover from the 60s (or Demi Moore's nude pregnant cover photo on Vanity Fair from the 90s, for that matter.)

Being the Luddite sentimentalist that I am, I have responded to this state of affairs by subscribing to magazines. I had let my New Yorker subscription lapse years ago, but immediately resubscribed the day pandemic lockdown began. Since then a friend gifted my a Texas Monthly subscription, which I enjoyed. I have subscribed to the Atlantic and Vanity Fair (it came free with my New Yorker sub and I've enjoyed it) since then. When I went to the newsstand with my daughters I picked up the most recent New Republic and was so impressed by it that I may indeed add another subscription. Who knows, maybe I will bite the bullet and get the meaty New York Review of Books back in my life (sorry Harper's, you've gone hack.) 

Not all of these publications are paywalled, but even then, it's worth it. The experience of reading a magazine online is so erratic and fractured. When I use my New Yorker app they keep pushing little web articles responding to current events to the top of the feed. I don't subscribe to the New Yorker for that, but for the voluminous studies of subjects that I didn't know I was interested in until I picked up the magazine. Just picking up the magazine is a great experience. It is not an agglomeration of links but a carefully considered product from front to back, the result of great effort and human creativity. (The French Dispatch is one of my favorite Wes Anderson films because it understands the aesthetics of magazines, which are not replicated anywhere else.) 

I am not sure how long paper copies of all the magazines I subscribe to will even be around, so I am trying to cherish them while I can. I also think there's just a chance that they will make a comeback. My daughters have long been intrigued by my copies of the New Yorker and like to formulate their own answers to the cartoon caption contest. They have a couple of subscriptions themselves, a love that I hope will blossom. At a time when the internet has increasingly become a cesspool of AI goop interspersed with popup ads and clickbait links, a well-composed magazine is a necessary antidote. Go read them while you can and maybe we can keep them around longer. 

Monday, January 15, 2024

Iowa Caucus MLK Day Thoughts

There's an irony to the Republican Party holding their first caucus on Martin Luther King Day. On the day we honor a man who demanded that the nation live up to its oft-proclaimed ideals of freedom and justice, we are seeing a wannabe dictator whose slogan is about reversing this country's gains since MLK's times about to trounce his opponents. Nikki Haley, who is supposed to be the "moderate" alternative, is a South Carolina conservative who refused to name slavery as a cause of the Civil War. The "party of Lincoln" has become the inheritor of the Lost Cause and is the political home of the people who fought so hard to stop the civil rights movement. 

This sadly should come as no surprise. King is so universally admired and claimed today that it is hard to know that he was a controversial figure in his lifetime. The FBI had him surveilled and used that information to blackmail him and in 1966 only 27% of white Americans said they had a positive view of MLK. Those people's political children (and hell some of the original bigots are still alive) are Trump's base. 

It's also hard to remember there was a time when King even getting a holiday was controversial. Jesse Helms, the avatar of Southern white racist migration from the Democratic to the Republican Party, tried to filibuster the bill establishing the day. Ronald Reagan, president at the time, implied in his public statements that he was holding his nose and voting for the holiday out of political considerations, rather than his own convictions. Some states like Arizona did not recognize the holiday (as Public Enemy famously denounced) while others used the day to celebrate both King and Confederates. Alabama and Mississippi still celebrate King and Lee's birthday on this day

Eric Foner called Reconstruction "America's Unfinished Revolution," and Dr King's efforts were part of a Second Reconstruction that also remains unfinished. The spectacle of Republican candidates clamoring to show their opposition to birthright citizenship and their support of banning Black history in schools is proof of this (if we still needed any.) While it might be depressing to face these facts 56 years after King's death, I want to use this day as a call to action. His death and the deaths of so many others who fought for equality should not be in vain. It's up to us to carry on their legacy and vindicate them. If anything else, the spectacle in Iowa today is a reminder of the stakes. 

Thursday, January 11, 2024

Low, "Just Make It Stop" (Track of the Week)

Over on my Substack page I wrote about how January 6th is a test that we are currently failing. That reality is hard to hold in my head sometimes, as is a lot of news these days. The daily reports of carnage in Gaza and Ukraine fill me with such sadness, and America's political scene does not fill me with hope. It is hard not to get stuck in a doom loop.

Beyond distancing myself from social media, I have managed to cope by paradoxically embracing my negative emotions. Our broken world is a cruel, capricious place where virtue goes unrewarded and the worst people never face justice. If you try to deny that basic, unalterable fact you will make yourself insane with anger and grief. The best artists and philosophers instead teach us how to endure this existence and even flourish in it despite its inherent absurdity. 

To that end I have been reading Kierkegaard again, but also listening to the right kind of music. Last week while listening to WFMU I happened to hear the song "Just Make It Stop" by Low and it stopped me in my tracks. 

I'd listened to some of Low' music before, but not this song. For a band considered "slow core" it's pretty fast-paced. The lyrics, however, are harrowing. The singer's heart is broken by this world and she begs and pleads for all of it to just stop. She's not suicidal or anything, just tired and worn out and needing a break from the never-ending pain and horror that she knows actually will not ever stop. 

This is an emotion I have felt at many times in my life, a desperate need to escape the inescapable, cruel reality that none of us can break from as long as we are living. Kierkegaard calls despair "the sickness unto death," and "Just Make It Stop" articulates that feeling better than any other song that I've heard. In an especially cruel irony Mimi Parker, the singer of this song, was cut down by cancer in 2022.

Lest you think I am horribly depressed or something, I am not. Making peace with the wretchedness of this world is necessary to overcoming it. In a year that I am sure will prove to be an awful one, the soul needs preparation. Once we dispose ourselves of childish optimism, we can actually get down to the real work of fighting the good fight against the worst of this world, victory or no victory.

Friday, January 5, 2024

Establishing a New News Diet For a New Year

 Over at Substack I wrote a piece that people seem to like about having a better news diet. The new year isn't just a good time to think about what we eat and drink, but also how we engage with the news. 

After I finished writing it I (of course) thought of a lot of things I forgot to mention. For example, it's really important to get a good source of local news (NOT these fly by night Patch sites.) I'm lucky to live in a place where local journalists have established their own site, which I subscribe to. I increasingly believe that people who are frustrated with the lack of change on the national level could profitably channel that emotion into getting involved in their own backyards. 

When I talked about my news diet, I also forgot to mention ProPublica, whose investigative work is invaluable. I also didn't say much about podcasts. I should have mentioned that I used to listen to stuff like the 538 cast and NPR's politics show but then I realized I had to cut out all horse-race coverage. Instead I just listen to analytical stuff like Know Your Enemy and Unclear and Present Danger. So far my news habit has greatly reduced my stress about the state of the world, so I guess I'm not just talking out of my butt in that piece.