No, not that kind of New Yorker.
The first time I ever bought a copy of The New Yorker, I was in Honolulu’s airport on my way to Tokyo. I had just turned 16, and was setting off on the main leg of the biggest traveling adventure of my youth: a two-month group study tour, without my parents, that included two weeks in Hawaii and six weeks in the People’s Republic of China. It was 1988 — one year before the Tiananmen Sqaure crackdown.
Memory won’t tell me what, exactly, was on the cover of that issue, but I remember that it was a cartoon in a pastel shade of green. It might have been by Saul Steinberg. But I loved it — the cover, the long stories inside, the cartoon, the typefaces, the Jazz Age/midcentury sensibility that has made this high-middlebrow magazine a standard for culture to generations of educated middle-class Americans.
It was also, of course, the perfect thing to read on a long plane flight: the variety of articles, especially when mixed in with cartoons, fiction, and poetry, held the attention. When you were done, you felt like you had learned something, while also getting a glimpse into a world that was considerably removed from the quiet slice of suburbia where I lived in West Texas. Regardless of what The New Yorker‘s articles addressed, the magazine really represented that certain sensibility, slightly anachronistic but unquestionably more stylish than the way that most of its readers have lived.
More than a decade later, I did my first piece of grade-A commercial writing when I wrote a review (now lost, alas) of Ben Yagoda’s history of The New Yorker, About Town, for the late, great online magazine Blue Ear. It was the first time I had ever been given a free review copy of a book, and I worked like a dog to live up to what I thought of as a high honor. Later, I used that review as a writing sample for the Austin Chronicle’s books department, which led to more reviews and more writing samples that helped me land my job at Hoover’s, where I still work.
Not that New Yorker, either.
Along the way, The New Yorker has been an inconstant but welcome companion. I clearly recall the day of my undergraduate career when a friend showed me the very first issue of the magazine to include a photograph in its editorial pages. The picture was of Malcolm X, and its inclusion represented a “bold” departure by the then-editor, Tina Brown.
Over the years of our marriage, my wife and I have subscribed to The New Yorker for long runs, and when we lived in New York for a year in the 1990s, my wife discovered the great utility of a weekly magazine with so much editorial content (all those long stories). It was the perfect thing to read on the subway, and you could actually read the whole magazine every week. These days, I still love to see a new New Yorker on the coffee table, but often I leave it unread, or just flip through to look at the cartoons. (My father-in-law loves the cartoon-captioning contest that was introduced to the back page a few years ago; I have no taste for it.) Anything I do read from it I choose from the contents page, because I can’t afford to get mired in so much material every week. I’ve got a job to do — several, in fact — and this Ph.D. won’t finish itself, either.
Not that the choices are always easy. Sure, there are issues when very little in the magazine appeals to me specifically; those are the ones I set aside unread. Sometimes I find one piece that I know I want to read (like the Haruki Murakami essay from which I quoted in the prior entry); when that happens, I get in and out of the magazine like a commando, not stopping for any of its other temptations.
And then there are issues like the latest one to hit our mailbox (June 23, 2008), which reminds me of the downside of my intellectual omnivorosity. Let’s just pick some highlights, eh?
- Peter Boyer writes “One Angry Man: Keith Olbermann’s rants and ratings.” — Okay, I’d like to read this, because (a) I’ve been following Olbermann’s career since his SportsCenter days, (b) I’ve seen plenty of these rants and think that Olbermann plays a tonic role in today’s media discourse (such as it is) about politics, (c) Boyer’s a good writer, and (d) I’m especially interested in an old-media notable, in this case from television, who has such a strong presence (via YouTube etc.) on the Internet. On the other hand, (a) ALL of the writers for The New Yorker are good, to the point that it’s not even worth calling out, and (b) I’ve told myself that I’m not going to read any more politics this year. I know how I’m voting in November, I have no time or money to give to political activism this year, and I simply have more pressing things to do with my time.
- George Saunders writes a “Shouts & Murmurs” casual/humor piece called “Antiheroes.” — Saunders is the favorite living fiction writer of my pal Austin Kleon, as is borne out by Austin’s many blog posts about him. So I’d like to give this a read, even though I might not be drawn to read it otherwise.
- John Seabrook writes an “Annals of Technology” piece, “Hello, HAL: The batle to make computers understand.” — I used to be a technology writer for Hoover’s, and I see the development of information technology as an overlooked element in mainstream academic history writing, so I’m tempted to read this for my own enlightenment.
- Jon Lee Anderson writes “Fidel’s Heir: Hugo Chavez’s big ambitions.” — Have I mentioned that I’m getting a Ph.D. in the recent history of U.S. foreign relations and that it focuses on the worldwide oil business? This article would seem to be germane.
- Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie writes a fictional story, “The Headstrong Historian.” — First, I studied a fair amount of African history in my Ph.D. coursework. Second, I’ve been reading more short fiction lately as I try to work on stories of my own. Third, this one has “historian” in the title. I sigh.
- James Wood and John Updike write reviews of novels I probably will never read, but I want to know what they have to say about them — again because I’m working on my fiction chops.
- David Denby writes reviews of “The Incredible Hulk” and “You Don’t Mess with the Zohan” — neither of which I’m likely to see. But I read the reviews anyway because I like Denby’s viewpoint.
A-a-a-and, next thing you know, you’ve read a third of a book’s worth of material, while the actual books that I actually must read — to finish my Ph.D., to finish other scholarly pieces, to review for my professional blog, etc. — still sit in stacks on the floor around my desk. That’s not to mention the books that fill an entire bookcase in my living room, or the scores of books that I want to read after my Ph.D., which I’ve boxed up and stored in the garage to keep them from tempting me.
That’s a cat after my own heart.
Which brings me to my real topic: trying to strike a balance between the sort of omnivorous reading that has always fed my imagination, and the sort of targeted reading that feeds real expertise in a given field.
When I write it down that way, the choice isn’t so hard, because my imagination is pretty well-fed already. More accurately, it’s morbidly obese, what with the hundreds of half-developed ideas for pieces — fiction, essays, scholarship, blog posts, magazine articles, poems, et cetera ad nauseam — that populate my world and my mind. When I’m honest with myself, the meter on my idea tank is pegged at More-than-Aplenty. I do need to keep up the pace of my reading, and even increase it, but not with the sort of miscellaneous matter that comes in each week’s New Yorker. Just looking at the reading material I have within arm’s reach, in fact, I’d be better served to spend my serendipitous browsing time with the Journal of American History and the American Historical Review, the latest issues of which — each with an unusual number of articles of interest to me — arrived in the mail this week.
Of course, it’s hard to tell the imagination-glutton that he can’t have his ice cream anymore. But — for now, at least — it’s true. Again, I sigh, but it’s for the best.
This, then, is not a final parting with my dear New Yorker, but merely au revoir. We will meet again . . . after I’ve gotten my imagination into fighting trim.
(Photo credits: Chrysler by Brain Toad; hotel by syvwlch; cat & magazine by aturkus.)