Red rags and speckled rags

Montréal, 26 Feb 2003

What do I read magazines for?

Over the last couple of weeks, starting with a conversation at a cancelled potluck which triggered memories of some passing comments from one of the Wordiness staff, something’s been gnawing away at me.

We all have a limited amount of reading time: we can shirk other commitments to read more, but there are natural limits. Due to outside lives, most of us never even approach these. So, having slotted in time for school, work, socializing, eating, sleeping and slacking off, I'm left with some amount of reading time. A portion of this (the part not reserved for papers, novels, the Web and practical books) is reserved for magazines. Two magazines vie for that time: Harper’s and the Atlantic.

Both magazines boast articles on politics, arts, books and trivia. Both have letters sections where readers write more interesting fare for free than punditds in lesser publications get paid for. Both attract advertisers of a certain highbrow bent, use serif fonts in their logos, list sources for some of their regular columns and are users of the black type in regular columns on white paper.

The main difference, as far as I can tell, is that Harper’s is almost always right.

Their editor, Lewis Lapham, has a bit of a rabid streak in his dislike of people who are wrong and likes his precedents to always come from Rome. Occasionally, a reader may manage to be wrong in the letters section, but they are usually soundly rebuked in italics by the author right after their letter.

On the whole, though, I agree with what’s in there, the art and layout is pleasing, and the writing is consistently tight, readable and well-crafted. I usually put down Harper’s thinking there are rational people out there and some of them run a magazine.

Therein lies the problem. I was convinced of my convictions before I picked it up. What was that hour of reading and feeling that my hunches are right (or at least corroborated by a seasoned writer in a long-running publication) good for? Why should my reading make me feel at peace with a small portion of the population of the next country over?

The Atlantic, although often sympathetic and at the same level of writng and craft (if a bit folksier in its ornaments and typography), has writers like P.J. O’Rourke, who is a devoted Republican and says bad things about Canada (that article may be a while in being released to the non-paying public). It prints letters like the one from Leonard C. Johnson, who predicts the downfall of the USA in “a drowning of the national identity in multicultural chaos”. It plays hardball with my religion, dammit! Stories of contentious archaeological theories and what I hope are just disturbing flukes in the distribution of murder and mayhem challenge and disturb me. Sometimes I put down the Atlantic feeling smug and happy that Reason Has Triumphed. Other times I put it down (often open and splayed on the floor) feeling like I've been in an ideological brawl or a strange and closed part of town. I'll be mulling what I've read over, trying to sort out the grains of truth from the misguided bits and (I hope) really thinking over the issues and what it might mean to me if that Republican O'Rourke or that loser Johnson were even slightly right.

Harper’s may have a larger proportion of writers who I’d consider right. In some sense, I should be a big fan of theirs... I should believe that their high-calibre writing and carefully correct opinions will win over a Leonard C. Johnson every once in a while. I love the Harper’s Index. I read their Weekly Review to get the big events and some of the page C15 stories summarized and interprested for me and to remind me not to take things too seriously. But I don't think Leonard C. Johnson reads Harper’s to be convinced... if he does, he probably reads it like I read the Atlantic. I feel I'm learning more when I wade into an Atlantic article that's fishy or hostile to what I believe. It's for the same reason (although the Atlantic is pretty subtle compared to what follows) that I wander off to read Eric S. Raymond’s latest political stuff or even a foaming-at-the-mouth diatribe or two against one type or another of rampant immorality (homosexuality, bilingualism, Macromedia Flash, being Phillip Pullman). The world is a place of diverse opinions, and it's good to read something from the other side. It's good to read something sane in the same magazine and for even the deranged rantings to be well-written, and the Atlantic provides just that.