Monday, April 23, 2012

Do you have a magazine?

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.


  1. A fine call to arms. I may take you up on it.

  2. I am down to three that I read in print on a regular basis: Paris Review (though it was way better under Plimpton), The American Scholar and The Strad. The Economist is still an occasional thing. I catch a few others online, but picking out a few articles on the web is nothing like reading a magazine from cover to cover. But there is not enough time, you know, ever. Which is my lame and shameful excuse to avoid reading nonfiction in depth these days.

  3. Well said Tom! I really enjoyed this. I have a subscriptino to the New York Review of Books and Bookforum and enjoy both. If I had time and additional funds I'd love to have subscriptions to the TLS and LRB and Paris Review. As it is I am four issues behind on my NYRB reading. Yikes! I agree that bloggers could learn from magazine writers if they were so inclined. I mention reading the NYRBs now and then but I never talk about any of the articles. Don't know why since there are so many good ones.

  4. I'm ambivalent about magazines, consistency is a problem and only the TLS gets my unwavering loyalty. I subscribe to LRB, who are impressive as hell at the moment. Each year I subscribe to a new magazine for a year and usually end up deciding not to renew. I've stuck with The White Review since launch and couldn't do without Cabinet. Brick and The New Yorker were last year's other experiments but I've let both subscriptions lapse (the latter I disliked intensely).

  5. I like this German magazine a lot. It's always thematical and sometimes its focus is more literature, sometimes architecture, art...
    I haven't found a literature magazine I liked always but I like the magazine of NZZ - Neue Zürcher Zeitung Books on Sunday.
    I attached it just in case smeone does read German.

    1. Die geneigte LeserinApril 23, 2012 at 4:26 PM

      Du is a great favorite of mine -- if only foreign subscriptions didn't cost 154 Euros! But it's a stunning example of excellent magazine writing paired with photographs and a layout of the same quality. Thanks for mentioning it.

      There are also quite a few good magazines in German. sightandsight ( does a nice job of cherry-picking from them.

    2. I agree with you, there are a great many online magazines even with outstanding quality like Glanz und Elend.
      Du is one of the most expensive magazines even when you buy it in Germany.

  6. My impression is that in Germany a lot of what I am describing as magazine writing has survived in newspapers. In the US the newspaper book section is close to dead. The Sunday NZZ, if I am remembering the right thing, is amazing as is the Sunday FAZ. I can't read them but I can see what is in them and weep.

    How you know that a particular magazine is the right one for you is another issue. I do not know the answer. Over the years I have spent time with a bunch of them. Luck, voice, who knows. The New Republic, the back of the book I mean, has had the same editor as long as I have been reading it, which must be art of the story. When Leon Wieseltier goes, I bet I will go, too.

    What is Cabinet? The website is incomprehensible.

    Someone else in my home gets NYRB, not me, so I am never behind, just by definition. But even skipping all of the political and current affairs articles, which I always do, there is lots more good writing in it that I wish I could get to.

    The Strad is maybe a little specialized for me. I agree that web reading is at this point no substitute. Maybe there are people who use The Quarterly Conversation or Open Letters Monthly like I use my magazines. Maybe the reader gadgets will take over. For me, the online magazines serve more as supplements.

    Anna, yes, hear hear, sound the alarum, dogs of war, etc. etc!

    1. I was at first goinf to ask whether I can add newspaper magazines as this is the magazine I think of - but it seems, as you say, to have survived only here.
      One of the best is from Die ZEIT. The FAZ and the NZZ are similar but the NZZ is more international. They have whole issues dedicated to translated literature and that woud make you weep even more.

  7. I ought to read more magazines--I'm a magazine editor, for goodness' sake, and I do read magazines related to the odd little publishing niche in which I work. I've flirted with several different magazines over the years, but I've not settled on one to subscribe to for more than a year or two. I've hardly delved into literary magazines at all, but I would like to very much.

    Your post comes at a good time because I was thinking a couple of days ago that I might make a project of visiting Barnes and Noble each month and choosing a meaty-looking magazine with good writing, a different one each month until I find one I'd like to subscribe to. If bloggers wrote more about what they're reading in magazines, it would help me considerably!

  8. I'd like to see a list of other magazines people think are worth reading (I'm lazy - I read lists more than I read magazines). My one indispensable magazine, which I can only get my hands on rarely, is the weekly Courrier Internationale from France, which is actually a compendium of articles from newspapers and magazines around the world. Invariably there's an interesting article about a writer as yet untranslated into French, plus a great opportunity to read journalists from around the globe.

  9. I read a smattering of hard copy and digitized journal articles that never make it into my blog but hardly any magazines from cover to cover as you seem to be talking about and/or recommending. I'm sure I'm missing out on a ton, but I often feel I don't even have time to read enough of the books that I want to get to anyway. When I was more into music, though, I got most of my info and reading entertainment from fanzines rather than the pro magazines--I fear this DIY music bias might account for some of the reasons so much of my reading time is spent with book bloggers as opposed to lit mag writers although I do realize that there are more good lit mags than punk or garage or free jazz magazines. P.S. Don't you think that much of the knock on "academic" writing is made by bloggers who wouldn't be into writers like Jarry anyway? It seems more defensive than a matter of taste to me when I run into it.

  10. So, Richard, your guess is that people who say the great benefit of blogging is the frequent use of the word "love" and who call pros like Michael Dirda "academic" and impersonal have in fact been reading nothing but blogs and have no idea what they are talking about? That is also my guess.

    Part of the impetus of this post is the strange feeling, writing about the Bierce collection, of being up to date, of finding myself writing not behind but along with some good pro reviewers. I am not usually any help with "keeping up." Weirdly, if this week goes as planned, I will continue to "keep up." Strange, strange, strange.

    Without magazines, I would not be able to keep up at all.

    My music reading, by the way, used to center heavily on the Village Voice back when it was good - back when it was awesome. So many good writers there.

    Anthony is ambivalent about magazines - I am ambivalent about books, and blogs, and you name it. I want good writing, the best I can find, wherever I can get it.

    seraillon - that list is much too long to be useful. But maybe the names people are leaving here will be useful.

    1. Tom, I think you're right that people who claim the pros are impersonal just aren't reading them, or are only reading terrible ones. I still see bloggers talk about how professional critics don't use the word "I" or write nothing but summaries, and I wonder where they get that idea. I've read some professional reviews that fit that description or that are just plain bland, but the reality is that the quality of professional reviews varies, just as it does among us amateurs. To dismiss a whole class of critics because some of them are poor seems misguided, to put it mildly.

    2. The next time I the theme recurs, I will just ask - "Who have you been reading?" But with some polite softening.

  11. Cabinet is a mishmash but the writing is routinely good. Issues are themed but may cover philosophy, aesthetics, social history, literature.

    My ambivalence about magazines is derived from the mixed quality of the writing. Books are more reliable but I read along narrow lines. Blogs, one or two exceptions notwithstanding, are rarely sources of good writing, but can still inspire good reading choices.

  12. That's a really good point. I read lots of stuff online and if something particularly strikes a chord or an interest, I like to write about it.
    I am a poor student, but the internet is full of great articles in online "magazines" or "article aggregators" like, and I'm an enthusiast of Instapaper, which organises my reading. but I also love getting my hands on magazines, of any type.

    Thank you for your post - it gave me something to think about.

  13. Two great points, Anthony, at least two: first, my goal, Epstein's goal, is to read widely; second, good insights, rare enough, can make me forgive less good writing. Why else do I read, or at least look at, so many book blogs?

    Mark Athitakis just put up a post about the state of book reviewing which mentions my other reason: blogs "agitate for better coverage of topics that mainstream outlets ignore." So blogs are a way to read even more widely.

    Because the real advantage of NYRB writers is not that they are necessarily the world's best writers. It is that they know more, they have expertise. is another good aggregator / "keep up" site. I had never heard of the ones Tania (can I call you Tania? nice blog, by the way) mentions, but now I have, so thanks.

  14. I used to subscribe to several magazines, NYRB included, but had to eliminate them all when we became a one income family. You've got me thinking about subscribing again. I read a couple of on-line "magazines" but none of them come close to what I found in an average issue of NYRB. I even read the political articles along with the book reviews.

  15. The $$$ can add up fast. The best magazines are usually boutique items, not cheap. And I have not even mentioned the cooking magazines. Separate topic entirely.