Cover to Cover
An education in monthly installments
December 23, 1987
If my favorite bookshop in Springfield was an autodidact's university, as I argued here, its lecture hall was its capacious magazine stand. I don't know which was the chicken and which the egg—I always found magazines fascinating, and I ended up being a magazine writer—but I do know that they mattered to me when I was young.
It was easy to spot Time magazine on the crowded racks at Hunter's Cigar Store in Beardstown twenty-five years ago. Alone among the True Detectives, its cover stories did not feature dismembered adulterers. I was working summers in Beardstown then, and Time was like a message from home, containing news of a wider world which Beardstown then seemed to acknowledge only by its suspicion.
Magazines provide something like substitute communities for those disconnected from like-minded human ones by distance (including dissent). The pages of a favorite magazine are for the disconnected a public square, park bench, coffee house, and tavern—its contributors something like friends. Books were important to me as a boy too, but the topicality of magazines made them a much more immediate presence. Reading them seemed less a lesson than conversation. If the great books are mountains to be scaled, magazines were for me a local pond where I could repair at will, a place familiar and accessible but which still offered the chance of some new discovery with each visit, a place where I need wade only as deep as I wanted.
I outgrew Time, as we all do when our tenth-grade educations make the Luce view seem suddenly so simplistic. Back home in Springfield I began reading things like Downbeat and The New Republic. (I was too young for Esquire.) I remember the latter with particular fondness. The New Republic was then printed on paper that seemed like parchment, which seemed appropriate for the pronouncements of writers such as Murray Kempton and the redoubtable Stanley Kaufman. I devoured every word, including reviews of books by writers I'd never heard of, disputes about foreign policy toward places I'd never heard of, analyses about economics I couldn't understand.
You are what you read, and the alert observer would have seen in the sight of me poring over The New Republic at fifteen the man who was to be—pretentious, well-informed in an ignorant sort of way, and eager to live vicariously in a wider world for which I was unfit in any role except that of reader.
I got older in the 1970s, but magazines all of a sudden seemed to grow positively decrepit. There were exceptions to the malaise. I recall the excitement of reading the early Hunter Thompson in Rolling Stone, and it was in the 1970s that I discovered belatedly that writers the quality of John McPhee and Jane Kramer were hiding out at The New Yorker. But the decade will live for me in the single nightmare vision of Richard Nixon reading People while he listens to the Bee Gees on the radio.
A few years ago the magazines started getting better, maybe because people my age began to run them as well as read them. Today I read lots of magazines, or at least read from them. When I am in that rare mood for serious reading I of course turn to World Soccer. The test of the time I still read parts of The New Yorker and the New York Review of Books. Reading New York can be fun in the same way that watching car wrecks can be fun, and the "front-of-the-book" pieces in GQ are often pretty good.
I still read Harper's and Atlantic Monthly too, although the word "still" is misleading. Harper's reinvented itself a couple of years ago and now offers one of the few really new approaches to the form since Henry Luce's brighter days, one which stretches the definition of journalism with invigorating results. The Atlantic reinvented itself too, in a more modest way. It still does what the quality monthlies always sought to do; it just rediscovered how to do it well. Among the newer magazines I find Grand Street (actually a quarterly journal) consistently interesting, meaning it is filled with things I wish I'd written. The Utne Reader is the counterculture's Reader's Digest in every way except that it doesn't fit as conveniently on the back of the toilet.
These are the magazines I leave about in the living room where probation officers and impressionable young people can see them. Poke around under James Krohe Jr.'s sofa however, and you will find a different sort of library. What I really read these days is trash of a certain pretension. Such as Andy Warhol's Interview. Conventional journals err in assuming that anything which important people say is popular; Interview proceeds from the assumption that anything the popular say is important. On one page you can learn where a Nobel Prize winner likes to buy his neckties and on the next read Jill St. John on theology—either, it should go without saying, is more interesting and more substantial than what, say, [then-U.S. Senator from Illinois] Paul Simon has to say about economics.
The college catechism from the 1970s—rock lyrics are a kind of poetry, Wordsworth was a poet, rock lyrics are as good as Wordsworth—forms the Interview creed. I do not agree with critics who complain that Interview is valueless, but I agree that it is pretty much values-less. In this it merely anticipates trends in the culture at large, which is what good fashion magazines always do.
Actually, Interview is pretty funny if you get the joke. A recent article about Christmas books opened with this sentence: "Hegel wrote in The Phenomenology of the Spirit that the history of the world is the story of the universe becoming more aware of itself. This year's best gift books fit that idea perfectly." One of my favorite columnists is Interview's Glenn O'Brien. This month he (I assume he is a man) opens with "I love this time of year. Everybody is so friendly. It makes everything better, and that's the way to go"—David Byrne by way of Andy Rooney. Those of you keeping a "Dear Prof. Alan Bloom" file may wish to clip O'Brien's "Yuletide Litany of Love" ("1 love the President. Life is like a movie now") from the December issue.
Reading Interview is like watching a really bad movie, by which I mean that it's fun until you let yourself realize that it wasn't meant to be. In such a mood I turn instead to Spy. Spy ("The New York Monthly") confirms Krohe's Second Law of Journalism, which states, for every excess there is an equal and opposite success. Wildly funny at its best, Spy is a deadly serious magazine which assumes that the only vocabulary appropriate for the description of the world's bogus experts and fraudulent politicians and corrupt money brokers is ridicule. Spy's style is hipper-than-thou but in fact it betrays a very old fashioned moral outrage at a world in which charlatans are crowned kings.
This confuses some people. Spy does not stoop to parody like National Lampoon (a magazine which was itself pretty good in its early days, when it reminded me of an updated Mad). It has been said—in fact it was said in Interview—that Evelyn Waugh's A Handful of Dust is misunderstood as satire, that Waugh in fact was merely telling "the honest, blatant truth." The truth demands that Henry Kissinger be described by Spy (not denounced, mind, simply described) as a "socialite-war criminal." And that fashionably anorexic society bimbos be profiled under the title, "Too Thin and Too Rich." And that Elvis fans be served by a chart which shows how much the King would have weighed on each of the planets.
Spy is innovative in more than its attitude. Michele Bennett's review of reviewers is must reading for those of us who know about popular arts only by what we read in the papers. After reading an essay by Denis Donoghue in The New York Times titled, "What Makes Life Worth Writing?" Bennett wrote, "I wish he knew." Equally useful is Bruce Handy's "Coming Attractions" column, which reviews movies still in production. Movies these days are accretions of deals, not works of art, argues Handy, and watching the finished film only distracts us from the real point of moviemaking, which is merchandising.
You can't buy Spy at Hunter's Cigar Store. Can't buy it in Springfield either. I can let you have my copies when I'm done with them, but you may have to wait a while. I read the whole thing from cover to cover. □