I guess I just really like getting magazines. These days, if you buy one or two issues a year, it’s often cheaper just to subscribe, which means there’s always a good chance of something new and interesting in the mail, which is something else I really like. But my big organization/clean-up project was stalled by the massive number of magazines; I kept coming across stacks of them in various closets, boxes, shelves, or, frankly, on just about any flat surface. So I gathered together the various piles and spread them all out in the living room by magazine. It was kind of frightening. I tend to accumulate – everything I own turns into a collection – but I pretty much could have built a fort with the piles.
I read magazines differently from books, apparently, since I can rarely read books on BART these days (the trains are just too filled with cell phones and iPods and other technological noise)but I can still read magazines, and not just the frivolous ones. It’s odd that I can read an essay in the New York Review on the train but would have trouble on the same train reading the same essay printed in a book, but some deeply ingrained feeling about books is preventing me. You’d think by now books wouldn’t be events for me, but I guess they are.
Even constant commuter reading was not going to work through the backlog I had accumulated, and clearly something had to be done. There’s a lot to be said for just tossing everything and starting afresh pioneer-style, but I can rarely bring myself to do that. I mean, something led me to spend money on the magazines in the first place. And I hate the thought of missing something, and there's always the delusional hope of absorbing everything, an impulse that has led me into excessive CD-buying (with piles of them yet unheard, or heard only once), excessive book buying (piles of unread books), too many nights at too many theaters, and the difficult problem of how long to stare at each painting in a museum – is staring for a lifetime enough to absorb something completely? Can anything stand up to that? Should you waste time on anything that couldn't?
There’s also a certain interest in seeing over a decade’s worth of magazines in one spot. You notice that at some point fonts got larger (they seem to be getting smaller again, but maybe that’s just my eyes getting even worse). Busy graphics take over one year, and white space takes over a few years later. The weeklies are the hardest to keep up with (the main reason I get ESPN the Magazine rather than Sports Illustrated is that the former is every other week, and the latter is weekly.) Season previews from six years ago for sports I don’t follow – those I can toss pretty easily. And current affairs have a way of not being very current if you don’t read them fresh – scan them for historical irony and then they can go.
Apparently I didn’t read the New Yorker at all in 2004 (and by “didn’t read the New Yorker” I mean “I read all the cartoons when the issue arrived and then tossed the issue on a pile to be forgotten for over four years”). Going through that year now, I found lots of articles about the utter failure of the Bush administration’s Iraq policy, and I'd have to remind myself that this wasn't this week's issue, though it might as well have been.
Other storylines arc dramatically with nothing in the middle (which, by the way, is what I’ve always thought Fitzgerald really meant by “there are no second acts in American lives”; the standard play of his day had a three-act structure, so he was claiming that there’s the skyrocket beginning and the tragic end, without the solid, productive years of the middle act). In the space of a few years the New England Patriots went from the Cinderella team that needed to prove itself to the dynasty everyone (outside of New Englanders at home or abroad) is sick of. Sports stories tend to fall into two categories anyway: the young firebrand trying to rise up from difficult beginnings to make a name, and the old lion fighting to retain his pride. For the really successful athletes, one story turns into the other, and I think there’s a basic truth there, but it also seems like such a pre-made narrative that you can’t help wanting an occasional variant glipse.
After a while it gets easier to flip through the magazines and classify the stories and let them go. Going through the past nine years of ESPN the Magazine, I found a surprising number of stories about how steroids are ruining sports and we’re all turning a blind eye – surprising, because it seemed that only last year did it become big news. I don’t like steroid use, but I think the whole issue is a little more ambiguous than its presentation implies, though that’s undoubtedly true for all stories. (Do steroids really give you an unfair advantage if everyone is doing it? Why are some supplements legal and encouraged and others not? It’s a continuum, and I think lots of people don’t see that. These days I hear athletes or actors described as looking like "steroid users" when they really look like normal guys in their 20s who have started a serious workout program. Maybe we’re just not used to healthy-looking Americans. As I’ve said before, Ah, America, the land where athletes and actors get thinner and more muscular and the battening audience gets fatter and fatter.)
Then there were the annual articles on whether America (outside of Giants fans, so that, as in the usual definition of America, this one also excludes the Bay Area) would ever love Barry Bonds. I think we can safely say by now that the answer is no, which is too bad. The music magazines tend to run the same sort of articles about Schoenberg and Elliott Carter (is Carter the Barry Bonds of twentieth-century American music, or vice versa? Discuss!).
It’s not too tough even for me to toss the 1999 NFL preview or Entertainment Weekly’s Oscar picks for 2003, but a magazine like Gramophone is a little more problematic. A review from the mid-1990s might still be of interest. But on the one hand, there’s a good chance the recording reviewed will be out-of-print. On the other hand, it was so long ago that the recording might well have been re-released, and in a cheaper version.
Then I realized I have way too many CDs anyway. The worst thing of all is feeling pretty sure that I had read something while also feeling that I needed to read it again, since I was a little hazy on what precisely it had said. It’s also a little disconcerting to see a re-issue hailed as a beloved classic of the gramophone, and to realize I bought it when it was new. I was amused to see ads assuring me that the future of home opera-listening lay with LaserDiscs. Some things go off to the Land of Lost Technology never to return, I guess (for a lot of people, my CDs would be one of those things, but I’m not prepared to give them up. I like to have physical objects rather than computer files, which I guess is one of the reasons my living room is filled with piles of magazines).
I also tend to read through, or at least look through, magazines like Men’s Health and Men’s Fitness, as opposed to tossing them en masse, as I can with more topical titles. (Here’s a handy guide to telling these magazines apart: Men’s Fitness has articles on how to keep your girlfriend from staying mad at you, Men’s Health has articles on how to keep your wife from staying mad at you, and Best Life has articles on how to keep your children and your boss from staying mad at you.) There are only so many ways you can do a bench press, so a lot of the advice is still worthwhile, though even magazines that take a basically sensible approach to health and fitness change with the society around them: for instance, since 9/11 you’ll see more military-centered articles. And at some point the cover models stopped being fitness models (who, conceivably, could be the reader, if the reader were genetically blessed, devoted to fitness, and hairless – though in the past few years, chest hair has come back in style, though not to the furry excess of the 1970s) and became celebrities, most of whom were more or less eager to talk about the new exercise program that buffed them up to wear superhero spandex in their latest release, coming soon to a theater near you. I wonder if whoever came up with the notion of “synergy” back in the day realized what a suffocating small circle it would produce.
Where celebrity fever has really taken over, I regret to say, is in the tabloids. For many years I subscribed to People magazine, when it was still a general-interest publication and not what V refers to as “Menopausal Women’s Weekly” (don’t deny it, you know it’s true). This always amused people (as opposed to People), since apparently I didn’t seem like someone who would subscribe to a magazine like that, but as I pointed out, I never saw any of those who made fun of me for subscribing tossing it aside to get to the New York Review of Books.
I let that subscription lapse years ago (People, not the NY Review, which remains my favorite magazine), but for several years I did get the Weekly World News. You remember the Weekly World News, progenitor of Bat Boy the Cave-Dweller – its screaming headlines and doctored photos and insistent coverage of Bigfoot and space aliens were straight from the great tradition, still defiantly and inexpensively printed in black-and-white on cheap newsprint when everyone else had gone over to color and shininess. Even with the screaming headlines, the black-and-white looked surprisingly chaste and severe next to the glossy color photos of misbehaving celebs that dominated every other tabloid, as if it were an early Bergman film stuck among MGM musicals. The “celebrities” that have taken over are, of course, as anyone knows who has waited in line at the supermarket, nothing and no one that any rational person would recognize as celebrities.
I had decided not to renew Weekly World News, because amusing as I found the articles about the newly discovered garden gnome sculpted by Michelangelo that turned up in a garden shed at the Vatican or the twelve warning signs that your co-worker might be a space alien, a certain sameness set in after a while, and it was, given its cheap printing, surprisingly expensive. So I felt a brief sense of guilt when, shortly after I declined to renew, it went under, the last survivor of a breed that once haunted the earth. I suppose it had failed to adapt to the times; the Weekly World News didn’t venture too much into Celebville except for Elvis and Marilyn Monroe, who, by the way, is apparently alive and living with 34 cats and a retired plumber in Cleveland, according to the November 8, 2004, issue. That same cover also has the headlines Secret Bush Hid During Election Campaign and 2nd Great Depression! Spend all your money now – it will be worthless by June! It took a little while, but they were right. Sometimes I thought there might really be something to their claim to be The World’s Only Reliable Newspaper. They may have invented the half-man half-alligator, but that’s not much worse than the MSM’s blind devotion to the right-wing agenda. I’m fully convinced that one of the many victims of the Bush Administration will be the credibility of the standard journalistic outlets.
I briefly considered hanging on to the Weekly World News on the grounds that, since it’s now defunct, my formerly trashy pile of old newspapers has magically been transformed into mylar-worthy Valuable Collectibles, but I think as soon as the recycle bin is empty again I will just say farewell to the World of Wonders found in its pages and toss them all, a tribute to the wasted world. Life is not an economical proposition. Besides, I still have the Bat Boy T-shirt they sent me for subscribing, at least until that too wears out.