What Are You Reading?

I spent this past Saturday evening in convivial company with a goodly-sized group of friends, and had a long conversation with one of the earliest champions of my blogging about where the direction of this particular blog, and my writing in general, will be headed over the coming year.  This brought us to discuss magazines and journals, and how I would have to think carefully about what sorts of print publications to target if I want to have an article of mine accepted for publication.  It also led me to the observation that the sort of things I write would tend to be confined to a very small area of the magazine racks, in the local branch of whatever mega-bookstore happens to still survive in your area.  To this the American Papist responded, “There’s a blog post.”

As my regular readers know, I generally write about cultural matters on this particular blog, often taking experiences or observations from my own life and then tying them in to some thoughts related to subjects such as art and architecture, film, literature, and so on.  Sometimes there is an overtly Catholic subject or component, and sometimes not, even though I make no secret of my Catholicism.  I simply assume that, as a gentleman, I know my place in the universe, and that there is no need for me to be a street-corner preacher on all occasions about the fact that I know there is a God, and I am not He.

It is difficult, though not impossible, to come up with a list of magazines that fit that sort of profile.  One thinks of “The New Yorker”, for example, or “First Things”, “More Intelligent Life”, and a few others.  Yet when one sifts through the publications available at the local book seller, these types of cultural magazines are very much not in evidence; oftentimes you have to really hunt for them, if the shop even carries them.  Sometimes asking the clerk to find you the latest edition of “Apollo” or “The Burlington” is like the scene in “The Simpsons” when Mr. Burns goes to the supermarket and looks for a copy of “Collier’s” – though the former two publications are still very much alive.

Instead, we have enormous sections dedicated to automobiles, sports, cooking, home decoration, celebrity gossip, and women’s fashion/lifestyle publications.  These are all publications which obviously the vast majority of readers enjoy, otherwise there would not be so very many of them.  Though it must be said that for me, personally, if we are coming down to brass tacks you could probably fit all of the magazines I would be interested in reading on a regular basis into a very small section of the bookstore racks.

We can also observe that most magazines have to carry a great deal of advertising content in order to turn a profit, and those which are industry-specific will, of course, appeal to advertisers from that particular industry as a venue in which to promote their goods.  If “Vogue Hommes” or “GQ” did not have ads for example, the rag trade would lose out on a major venue  to showcase the latest cut of suit or necktie.  This is not something to be disparaged, for oftentimes such advertisements give us helpful ideas, yet at the same time it is also a downfall for content that is more thought-provoking and involving, rather than flashily engaging.  Will you take the time to read a very long article about traveling the Silk Road, for example, where you will have to turn to the back of the publication to finish reading the piece, if there are all sorts of photographs and advertisements in between to capture your attention?

Life involves the mundane, and the commonplace, far more often than it involves the luxurious and the rare.  For those who live in grand circumstances or move in high academic and policy circles, there is no excuse for being so unaware of the basic realities of everyday life as to create a kind of mental block regarding the needs of others.  Otherwise, they may find themselves with a lot of explaining to do when they arrive at the pearly gates, and are asked what they did with the five talents of silver they had been given, as we heard in the Gospel reading yesterday.  Nor is it an excuse for someone in modest but not dire economic circumstances to say that because they only have one talent of silver, that they may therefore go off and bury it.  The broadening of the mind is possible at a very modest expense, through the internet, careful selection of television and films, attendance at free cultural events, visiting the public library, and, yes, picking up a more wordy magazine once in awhile.

It would seem to this observer that one needs to straddle the dividing line between substance and subsistence (or even fluff)  when it comes to what one reads in the magazines one happens to pick up, as much as is the case when it comes to many other outputs of human creativity – food, music, entertainment, and so on.  That I love serious Danish films for example, does not mean I do not also enjoy something completely silly like “Jumpin’ Jack Flash”.  I may savor Châteauneuf-du-Pape from my particular favorite château when I can get it, which is not at all easy, but I also love orange and lemon Fanta soda – though admittedly the latter is almost impossible to find in this country.  Balance is what we should be aiming for, even if we slip a copy of “People” between the pages of our copy of “Foreign Affairs”.

2 thoughts on “What Are You Reading?

  1. Great post — especially with the illustration. At one time (and it seems that I start too many sentences with those three words), there was a real magazine culture in the US. High-end slick magazines that were rich with content, both high and middle brow, and scores of pulp magazines for adventure stories. I knew several writers from the pulp era (all are gone now, sadly), and they said it was a GREAT time to be a writer because there was a limitless need for content.


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