(The Economist. Dec. 2008.)
We subscribe to both The New Yorker and The Economist (you know, so I can contrast British conservatism with American liberalism, which is often a futile endeavor, considering that mainstream American liberalism -- as reflected by our mainstream "liberal" publications -- is maybe positioned about a quarter of an inch to the left of Margaret Thatcher, and British conservatism -- at least as reflected in this one publication -- is maybe about half an inch to the right of Franklin Roosevelt). In theory, I'd like to be on top of these two magazines for which we pay good money. In practice, I suffer from what a former colleague of mine once explained to me is "New Yorker guilt" (and its equivalent The Economist guilt). This guilt involves staring at piles of magazines, week after week, always meaning to get around to reading them, but somehow, never quite managing to do so.
Luckily, I'm married to Bob. He's not quite as compulsive about wanting to read at least 60 books a year as I am. He has no problem spending 2 hours reading nothing but magazines and newspapers, even if two hours is all the free time he has that day. Me? If I've only got two hours to read, I'm spending that time with a book. Thus, one could argue, magazine subscriptions are a total waste of money on me. Bob is the one who keeps us from throwing money down the drain on "good intentions."
I really do mean to read those magazines. Whenever we renew a subscription, I always think it's a great idea. You see, I sometimes have more than two hours a day to read. I sometimes don't really feel like reading a book. I realize that, because we don't have television, it's a good idea for me to get my news from sources other than our lousy local newspaper, and I don't always want to curl up in a chair with my laptop in order to do so. Sometimes, I want a magazine. (I don't know what I'm going to do the day all magazines finally convert to online versions only. I'm praying for some sort of perfect "reader.")
Enter New Year's 2009. Time to make some resolutions. What better resolution than to decide to read more than just the cover of The Economist each week? What better corollary to that resolution than also to read more of The New Yorker than the movie reviews, the cartoons, and the table of contents to see if David Sedaris is a contributor this week? What better place to start than while on vacation in Maine for a week, especially since Bob has had the foresight to bring both magazines with him?
Enter also the fact that I happened to have been reading Ayaan Hirsi Ali's Infidel for one of my book discussion groups. I was struck by the realization I'd never heard of Ali before reading this book. How ignorant I am, really, about the rest of the world and what happens there. Here we have a major story, even a murder that's a part of it, about a member of Dutch Parliament, and I didn't have a clue before reading this book. Meanwhile, the minute this book was suggested, Bob was like, "Oh yeah, Ali and that Dutch filmmaker who was murdered." You can tell who's reading The Economist in this household, can't you?
So, I sat down with the special holiday double issue, hoping that I can be as informed about the rest of the world. Halfway through it, I realized why these magazines go unread, and, really, why I will never be informed when it comes to politics and world issues. You see, I have an uncanny ability to skip right over articles entitled "The Madoff Affair: Dumb Money and Due Diligence" and "Israel and the Palestinians: Lift the Siege of Gaza." "Venezuela's Alternative Currencies" and "Latvia's Troubled Evening: Baltic on the Brink" are articles I might read if I had nothing better to do (like cleaning toilets). Meanwhile, I admit with shame that, yes, I'd make a good little isolationist, as I found myself interested, Madoff article notwithstanding, in almost all the articles in the "America" section, most especially the one about Barak Obama's choice for Secretary of Education.
However, during my reading of the first half of the magazine, to which articles did I devote most of my time? One of them was "Angels: Messengers in the Modern World." Yes, I wasted a good fifteen minutes or so of my time (guesstimate here. I don't time myself while reading) on the demise of other mythical beings but not angels. I read about people who are sure they've been "touched by an angel." And it isn't really like the article gave me that much. Did the writer give me proof of their existence? No. Did he give me proof that they don't exist? No. Did he even give me a good history? No (I got a better history during a tour I once took at St. John the Divine in NYC). Here's something interesting, though: I expected that a significant number of Americans might believe in angels, given the number of "church-going" and "religious" Americans who show up in surveys all the time, and I was right: 45%. What surprised me were the significant numbers of Britons, Canadians, and Australians who did so: "in the 30s." (Why weren't they more specific? Why all lumped together? My guess is that the number was 38 or 39 for Britain, and The Economist was uncomfortable with its own countrymen being so closely aligned with crazy Americans.)
All right, I'm married to a minister. On some levels it makes sense that an article on angels might capture my attention. But really. I'm passing up the opportunity to read In the Fall, the book I set aside earlier this afternoon, in order to read about angels? The next one is going to really kill you, though. How about an article on oysters? And we're not talking here about some rare oyster found in some country halfway around the world (like Latvia), an oyster whose discovery just might improve the country's economy but that also might cause WWIII. No, there's nothing "world issue-y" about this at all. We're talking about oysters right out of the Chesapeake Bay, which is practically at my back door in PA. Oh, and also about the history of oysters in New York.
I love oysters, though. The quote at the end of this article by the symbolist poet Leon-Paul Fargue about eating an oyster is priceless, "like kissing the sea on the lips." (p. 48) Here's something I bet you didn't know "...it is not so much that oysters live in clean water, as that water with an abundance of oysters in it will be clean." (p. 48) Needless to say, our waters don't have anywhere near the numbers of oysters they used to have. Well, it was certainly worth the fifteen minutes (or so) of time it took me to read that article to have more proof of the damage human greed (this time in the guise of over-fishing) is doing to the environment, as well as to find out what we're doing to combat this problem.
Next, it was onto the article about chile peppers. (I promise you, I'm not making this up. Go check out this issue at your local library.) And that's just the tip of the ice berg. What about the article on evolutionary arguments pertaining to the human need and reactions to music? I'd like to question some of the researchers on their methods and techniques, but that didn't keep me from being riveted to the article. That one wasn't nearly as bad as the other article on Darwinism, though (so eloquently discussed by Litlove), whose arrogance and sexism infuriated me (still, I read the whole thing through). There was "William Tyndale: Hero of the Information Age" (huh? How could I possibly skip that article? For those of you who didn't attend seminary vicariously, Tyndale is the man who is basically responsible for what we call the King James version of The Bible). Some editor wasn't thinking clearly when that title was chosen, but the article was still an interesting synopsis of Tyndale's influence. And what about "Tin Tin: A Very European Character?" (I had no idea that my childhood love of Tin Tin was classist. Nor do I believe what the article proclaims, which is that most Americans don't know Tin Tin. That's not true, is it? After all, I've seen reprints at Restoration Hardware. Another claim about Americans I found hard to believe was in the article about the history of cookbooks -- "Cookbooks: Pluck a Flamingo" -- and that is that most Americans don't know Nigella Lawson. Tin Tin, maybe. But Nigella Lawson? Which Americans are these writers polling?)
There's more, but I'll stop here. I will tell you, in fairness to me, that last month (before I'd read Indfidel), "Somali's Islamists: the Rise of the Shabab" would have been glossed over in my hurry to get to Tin Tin. This month, however, I read every word. I also read every word in the article on the Sufi. So maybe I'm broadening my world issues horizons after all.
And what about The New Yorker? Well, I never quite got around to it. Too busy reading about oysters and angels. However, I got home and began to read the issue that arrived while we were away: anyone for examining kosher food techniques in Chinese factories? How about Will Oldham ("who?" you may very well be asking. So was I. A few pages later, and I'm eager to go out and buy all his CDs)? Or perhaps you're desperate for all you ever wanted to know about The Village Voice?
Still, I am determined to keep to my resolution of reading these magazines more in 2009. I suppose, maybe, I'll get about five books read this year.