Just the other day, my husband said to me that he was sick of wading through the sheer volume of stuff on the Internet. He is ready for an intelligent person to come along, aggregate top-quality articles, put them all together in a handy portable format in a binding that a reader could just flip through at leisure. Lucky for him, I still subscribe to a lot of magazines. He was being facetious, of course, but there was just enough undercurrent of seriousness in what he said to encourage a magazine-phile such as myself. I pointed to the teetering stack in the corner—everything from Wired to First Things to The New Yorker to Elle Decor—and told him to have at it.In the face of the threat to the very existence of the periodical, it does not seem out of place to offer support of the medium in overwrought spiritual terms.
I not only subscribe to magazines, I keep magazines. Not in multiple teetering stacks, thankfully, but in quantities that invite comment. I have several (tidy!) piles of magazines dating back many years, some as far back as 1912, which predates my own arrival on the planet, just to be clear. A good periodical will publish work that is both of the moment and of universal human interest, so it follows that a magazine from 1912 can make for some timely reading, even now. There is something humbling about reading an article in the long-defunct Collier’s Weekly, for instance (peak circulation: 2,500,000), such as the one I read written by a 19th-century reporter offering a direct account of being present at Lizzie Borden’s trial. It makes the stuff of history come alive, which is a useful reminder that the time I live in now will one day be the stuff of history. According to the reporter, Lizzie Borden seemed cold and remorseless at the trial. A firsthand account this captivating beats a rerun of Law & Order any day.
Technological advances can be a beautiful thing. The printing press—the technology that makes the magazines I love even possible—was a technological advance of the highest order in its day. But when it comes to the march of the newly possible, are we able to recognize the moment when we race toward a new good thing at the expense of a good thing already in existence? Of course, it’s not that digital publishing should take a back seat, but more about determining—with the shrill cultural insistence we are so capable of—that screens can and will cohabit with the printed word.
After all, we are material people, composed of dust, and it is no wonder that we feel a bit of kinship with paper, a composite of pulp, without form and void until it is given meaning. The pages of the Bible itself are bound into a single finite book, the physical text occupying a place of honor in homes in a way that no Kindle could ever possibly match.
Not to compare the status of the BIble with the ephemeral nature of magazines, but again, there is a certain kinship. In both, words materialize into something tangible through the transformation of print. Like meets like when human hands hold words in printed form. Is it possible to spiritualize a magazine subscription? Unfortunately, yes. But in the face of the threat to the very existence of the periodical, it does not seem out of place to offer support of the medium in overwrought spiritual terms.
To move from the sublime to the political, one of the frequent criticisms leveled at President Trump is that, according to all accounts, he is not much for the printed word. The dismay at this news is heartening. In spite of our love of digital devices, Americans still attach a cultural value to reading print materials. Even as we don’t manage to read much beyond headlines ourselves, we aspire for more when it comes to our leaders. I take comfort in imagining that someone in the White House has the job of subscribing to relevant periodicals. This person faithfully leaves The Economist and The Week lying around the Oval Office and its adjacent bathroom in the hope that a stray paragraph of printed incisive political commentary might find a home in such a place. This is what American optimism is all about.
Regardless of what happens in the halls of power and industry, I will carry on with my subscriptions. Taking it further, I will continue to keep obsolete magazines in my tidy stacks. I may be the last subscriber standing (or reclining, with a cup of coffee in my hand), but I will never, ever stop. No one in my house will ever be without the means to make a collage out of old magazines, should the urge strike. No one in my house will ever be without a backlog of reading material when the electronic technological apocalypse occurs. And when Jesus comes back he will find me ready, having enjoyed my time in the anteroom of heaven with a steady supply of magazines that have provided domestic inspiration, intellectual fodder, and tips for optimal skin care in the meantime.