Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Economic Use of Time?

(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.


Watson Woodworth said...

I used to l-o-v-e magazines.
I still go through The Nation at the library but I think the Changing of the Guards might freak them out now that people are actually paying attention to what Nation writer have to say.

By the way, have you noticed that Rolling Stone has shrank?

Eva said...

I HEART The Economist, although the holiday issue is always amusing at best! I'm experiencing Economist guilt right now, but usually I read it every week. Except I skim the business and finance sections...because I just can't bring myself to care all that much, lol.

Amanda said...

When I worked in a library I used to enjoy the Wall Street Journal for an alternative perspective quite far removed from my own life. I can't quite bring myself to pay for magazines though when the internet is free (although I have been given gift subscriptions to Cuisine and House and Garden which I quite enjoy)

It's interesting what you say about mainstream American liberalism. I remember reading some of Hilary Clinton's speeches and thinking she would be far right were she transplanted to New Zealand- at least in some respects

Emily Barton said...

Nigel, yes, I did notice the shrinking of Rolling Stone (not that I subscribe, although we discuss the virtues of it all the time). Reminds me of when The New York Times shrank. I suppose I'll eventually get used to it.

Eva, I don't even bother to skim the business and finance sections :-)!

Ms. Make Tea, I had a government professor in college who told our class, despite our heated debates and convictions that there are vast differences between the two, most people in other countries can't tell the difference between an American Democrat and Republican. He made his point well, and I had to agree with him.

ZoesMom said...

New Yorker guilt is exactly the only reason I miss my NYC commute. I used to read it cover to cover every week. Admittedly I would skip the last 3 pages of certain articles that seemed to go on and on, but I did at least start every article. As a matter of fact, I used to subscribe to Harper's and Tin House too. I read them all plus I still had time for books.

Nowadays I limit myself to only the New Yorker. I start with the Talk of the Town, then fiction, then movie reviews and if there's time for more I will see what other articles I want to read. (Of course I always check the TOC for David Sedaris too.) I think you just have to read the things that strike your fancy. Life is too short and there is way too much to read.

Anonymous said...

Wonderful post, Emily! I feel so bad about not knowing what's going on in the world, but then I cannot bring myself to read the articles in the magazine. I pester my husband with ill-informed questions instead!

Anonymous said...

Wow - your magazine choices and resolution to actually read them is impressive. I had a subscription to Cooking Light for years and I vowed to cancel it if I didn't cook at least one recipe from each magazine. (Otherwise why am I paying for the subscription - to read recipes?) Needless to say I do not get Cooking Ligh any more and I am fully overwhelmed with "trashy" magazines like Parents (which I just canceled) and Real Simple. I'd never make it with a news-y magazine!

Rebecca H. said...

I've devised a system of reading magazines during meals, unless I happen to have a book around I want to read more than I want to read a magazine. So I read magazines at meals maybe half the time. I don't get through everything, but I do manage a few New Yorker articles and often a few essays from the NYRB and sometimes Harpers. I'm not sure about The Economist though -- if we subscribed, I think I'd be skipping a lot ...

Susan said...

The Economist!! Yikes. I suppose I should, but I still get Entertainment Weekly, my fluff reading - supposedly for the book column to know what's coming out, and new movies, but really it's brain candy. And I need it!!! Vogue for my eyes, and then Locus so I can jealous of all the writers writing, and go start writing again. I don't have time for the Economist! Darn, there goes another brain cell, leaping out of my head in desperation!!! So I heartily approve of all the articles you did read!! lol

Anonymous said...

Before I had kids it was books, hands down, that I spent my free time with. These days, magazines are what I turn to more often as the quick, bite-size articles fit my time-crunched lifestyle better at the moment. I still fantasize about sitting down to read a book for more than 10 minutes at a time though...

Emily Barton said...

ZM, yes, life is way too short with way too much to read... Sometimes, though, I long for a non-driving commute with an excuse to do nothing but read.

Litlove, your husband and mine could get together for a wonderful commiserating talk. But, since I'm bound and determined to try to read more of it this year, if you'd rather have my occasional (very biased) account, I'm more than happy to supply it.

Sara, maybe my Cooking Light subscription (a magazine Bob DOES not read) would make more sense if I could be like you and decide to cook at least one thing from it. Great idea.

Dorr, magazines at meals makes sense: they do a much better job of lying flat on the table than books, don't they?

Susan, don't feel bad. I had a gift subscription to People, and I promise you, it got far more attention than The Economist last year!

Amity, you'll get there. All my friends with kids tell me there's about a ten year period in which magazines are all that can be read, and then they jump back into books, once the kids decide spending time with their friends is far more important than making demands on Mom.