No need to actually answer the question. It is just something I have been wondering about. I assume that anyone interested in culture – anyone writing a book blog, for example – has a magazine or two, a literary magazine, in the background, but in fact almost no one writes about what they are reading or have read in magazines, suggesting that my assumption is wrong.
By “has a magazine” I mean “regularly reads a magazine,” one that or some ill-defined reason feels like home. I have read The New Republic, basically cover to cover, for almost twenty-five years (ack, cough – is that true? Yes, it seems to be true), and The Hudson Review for fifteen, and I poke around in lots of others.
Joseph Epstein, in “New & Previously Owned Books & Other Cream Puffs,” found in Once More Around the Block (1987):
Around the age of twenty I discovered the intellectual and literary magazines – Partisan Review, Commentary, Encounter, The Hudson Review, The Kenyon Review, The American Scholar, The New Republic, The New Yorker, the British weeklies – and I have read them ever since. They were especially helpful to me as a young man who himself one day wanted to write. This was during a time when second-rate books were not taught at universities. Reading great authors is the best method of education; but for someone who wishes to write, they can be discouraging.
The essay is actually a fine ode to the intellectual value of bookstores, used and new, the top-ranked of “the four main agencies of education in my life” – but magazines come in at #2 (“3. libraries, 4. schools”).
If I had more time or energy to read I would read not more books but more magazines. For anyone not blessed with a rare and particular upbringing, it is magazines that make a person “cultured” – a word that should really be pronounced as if by Jean Hagen in Singin’ in the Rain: KUL-chud. Anxiety about being unkulchud is a fine motivator, and I have no argument against it.
Magazines are the quickest path to kulcha, although they are not all that fast. The stuff of culture accumulates with time and repetition. My new Hudson Review (Spring 2012) has, besides the Ambrose Bierce article I used last week, pieces on Eugenio Montale, Merce Cunningham and Pina Bausch, the Neue Gallerie, Philip Glass, Gregor von Rezzori, William Carlos Williams, acting Hamlet, topped by a typically expert and thoughtful William Pritchard essay on Ben Jonson’s poetry. What a hodgepodge, with no organizing principle except that a writer thought the subject would be interesting. But now I know, at least temporarily, more about all of those things than I did.
I read an enormous amount of literary biography, but almost exclusively in magazines. Mark Ford’s review , in the May 10 New York Review of Books, of a recent biography of Alfred Jarry is itself a fine piece of biographical writing and a useful overview of Jarry’s work. The chance that I am going to read the 405 page Alfred Jarry: A Pataphysical Life by Alistair Brotchie is zero, are you kidding? Or a 528 page Freudian biography of William Carlos Williams? Or a 700 page account of the atrocities of the Spanish Civil War? But reading about them in considered, edited pieces is enormously valuable.
As a writer of hasty, unedited essays, I have come to put more value on literary magazines, not less. It is the magazine writers who have taught me how to write about books, how to make arguments and use evidence, how to try to do something complex while paying attention to style.
Please see Michael Dirda’s piece on Ambrose Bierce in the new NYRB, which arrived at my house too late for me to use it, and which is thorough, knowledgeable and friendly (when bloggers complain about the formal or “academic” writing of professional reviewers I always wonder what on earth they have been reading). Dirda’s review is a lot better than mine! Skip mine and read his, if it is not too late. But: his review is an example of the target I am aiming at.
I wish book bloggers wrote more about their magazines. Maybe I should, too.