Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Periodically Speaking

In my younger days at the University (lol) I would often spend time browsing the periodicals at the library. I would often come across The New Yorker Magazine, take it down and riffle through the pages. Somehow, I always got stuck on the "Talk of the Town" section and never seemed to get past it. In those days, before I had ever spent much time actually living in a city, I was generally anti city life, as a matter of principle. Coming from a rural background, and a family where my mother was afraid to drive into town on Friday nights because of the traffic -- town being Concord NH, a city of perhaps 30,000 in that time -- I had been raised with a broad distaste for the urban. A visit to Boston was a major undertaking, carrying a frisson of danger and peril from crazy Boston drivers, inscrutable maps and the unwashed mass of humanity driven to life in concrete warrens and asphalt deserts. Now after having lived for several years in Detroit, if I don't prefer urban life, at least I can speak from personal knowledge that it's not as bad as I had been raised to think.

New York is of course the City of all Cities. While for some, like Garrison Keillor, this seemed to make it an object of great fascination, I approached anything to do with that sprawling human hive as vaguely suspect from the start.  Yet I had heard someplace the The New Yorker was a great literary magazine, worthy of attention. So I would open it and begin to read The Talk of the Town column which resides toward the front pages.

Reading it now, with the wider perspective that comes with age and experience, I find some of the items in TOTT to be interesting and engaging. At the time, however, it seemed more of a parochial account of a certain narrow segment (perhaps the stem?) of New York to which I did not relate well. I would read of art openings, charity events, business and social gossip of the highly placed and highly falutin', all taking place on streets and neighborhoods that were names on the page, but not places in my mind. Now I have learned just skim the section, lighting on articles of interest, and letting the rest go. But in my early earnestness I tried to read it all through until I got bogged down and just gave up. Because I stopped there and went no further I really didn't find the excellent articles that lay further in.

Not too long ago I recently rediscovered the New Yorker in a waiting room. I was floored by the writing, and dismayed to think of what all I missed out on. The article that grabbed me was about uncontrollable itching. Yes. You read that right. I have since discovered many other that contain fascinating stories on people and events in a broad cross section of human culture from all over the world. Fascinating and compelling. I have since read many other articles from various issues. I am now a convert to the New Yorker.

I guess that the days when The Grand Periodicals like the New Yorker defined the literary style and direction of our culture are gone. New fiction is comparatively rare in the magazine landscape, limited to those like TNY that have a strong tradition of fiction that they feel they must uphold. Nevertheless, I get the sense that their heart really isn't in it. Most are almost exclusively bent toward writing that is flavored heavily with journalism. It would seem that the news story, in various forms, is the defining literary style of our time. That's not necessarily bad, but I suspect that it ain't what it used to be. Even so, it's still pretty good.

Perhaps I was just too young to appreciate TNY back in the day. I wonder if I just persevered beyond the Talk of the Town to mine the rich lode of full length articles further in if I might have fostered a greater appreciation. After all, I am predisposed.

You see, I love magazines, all kinds, but especially the ones with fewer pictures and lots of text. I like in-depth explorations, broad and beautiful descriptions of people, places, times and events. I like that even the longest articles can be completed in a half hour but the good ones will leave my brain buzzing for days. I like good strong evocative language, and analysis that nudges my noodle toward new perspectives. And I like that sort of thing in large doses. That's the kind of magazine I really like.

But I'm really not that picky. If I had the time and the money, I would subscribe to dozens. New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Harper's, Weekly Standard, Mother Earth News, Mother Jones, Utne Reader, Time, Newsweek, Wired, Inc, Fast Company, National Review, Outdoors, Men's Journal, Men's Health, Christianity Today, First Things, New Oxford Review, just to name a few in no particular order.

And that doesn't even begin to touch the special interest rags on topics like history, martial arts, guns, physical culture and physical training, science, technology, hiking and outdoors, hunting, farming, forestry, and so on.

But for now, I will have to content myself with various free back issues of whatever I can find in waiting rooms and libraries -- occasionally even picking the odd issue out of the mixed paper recycling pile at the local dump. Hey...I'm recycling. You got a problem with that?

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