As as been mentioned here from time to time, I love magazines. One of the consequences of loving magazines quite as much as I do is the receipt of sweet deals on subscriptions – the various periodicals get together over beer and billiards at their local pub and swap names on the most prominent suckers and marks they’ve encountered recently, and invariably my name comes up. “Oh hey, Financial Times, you should send this Donoghue guy a sweet subscription deal,” says National Geographic eagerly. “Nah, no dice,” responds Financial Times despondently. “We try him every other year, but it’s just a waste of our government-reimbursed postage – it’s like the guy ain’t interested in the markets, like, at all.” “You should try him again,” Nat Geo persists, somewhat smugly. “Drop your per-issue rate just another dime, and sing him some song about quality of prose and crap like that – he’ll crack, trust me.” “Really?” says Financial Times, a glimmer of hope in its bar-code. “He’s right,” pipes up Harper’s. “We haven’t published a good issue in about twenty years, but we gave him a sweet deal, and his renewal checks come in like clockwork. Guy’s a patsy.” At which point Financial Times puts on his hat and coat and says, “Would you excuse me, boys? I’ve gotta go improve my Circulation.” And three weeks later, I know more than I’ll ever need to know about Special Drawing Rights and the Cape Verdean escudo.
This happened recently, when I got a sweet deal offer on Smithsonian magazine, the print-arm of the venerable Smithsonian Institution. The magazine started in 1970 (hoovering up loose-end talent from ailing other journals, if memory serves), and back then I never missed an issue. But years passed, and subscriptions failed – I was out of the country, I was temporarily ‘cutting back’ to only fifteen magazines, or (more likely – much, much more likely, alas) they offended me with some innocuous cover story and I responded like “Red” Will Danaher in The Quiet Man: “Write their name down in me little book – now draw a line through it!” For whatever reason, Smithsonian and I parted ways and have only just recently re-connected.
It’s been like a wondrous homecoming. I’d completely forgotten the riches I was missing. Each issue features a wide variety of regular columns, stunning photography, and fantastic articles, and here I was missing it every month! Just these last two issues have given me such enjoyment that I’ve wanted to press them on the fellow patrons of my hole-in-the-wall Chinese food restaurant (except there aren’t any other patrons, ever).
Two cover stories especially stand out: Ernest Furgurson’s compact account of the First Battle of Bull Run has a fast-paced, almost cinematic feel to it:
About 5:30 that morning, the first shell, a massive Federal 30-pounder, whanged through the tent of a Confederate signal station near Stone Bridge without hurting anybody. That round announced Tyler’s advance, but the Confederates would not detect McDowell’s main effort for three more hours – until Capt. Porter Alexander, far back at Beauregard’s command post, spotted through his spyglass a flash of metal far beyond the turnpike. Then he picked out a glitter of bayonets nearing Sudley Springs. He quickly sent a note to Beauregard and flagged a signal to Capt. Nathan Evans, who was posted with 1,100 infantry and two smoothbore cannon at the far end of the Confederate line, watching Stone Bridge. “Look out on your left,” he warned. “You are flanked.”
Equally fantastic is another cover-piece, this one on whale sharks, adapted from Juliet Eilperin’s great new book Demon Fish: Travels Through the Hidden World of Sharks. An old friend of mine assures me that these monstrous creatures a) are harmless to swimmers and b) spend 98 percent of their time cruising at mind-boggling depths, through caverns measureless to man. Eilperin’s article nevertheless has a stunning photo of a group of whale sharks who congregate regularly at the surface off the coast of Brazil.
But it’s more than just cover stories, of course – I read a richly illustrated, engaging piece about Agatha Christie by Joshua Hammer (him again! Must I now search for his work all the time?), a great, thought-provoking piece on early American horticultural artists by Daniel Kevles, and a long and revelatory piece by Abigail Tucker about archaeologist Patrick McGovern, who holds that the history of mankind is far more intricately intertwined with the history of intoxicants than we’ve customarily suspected. Among the article’s many pleasures is its Jekyll-and-Hyde portrayal of the good professor, first looking like the very last person you’d want to have a beer with:
… and then looking like, well, the very first person you’d want to have a beer with:
I finished these two re-introductory issues with a big smile on my face, feeling the warm glow of catching up with an old friend, feeling the determination never to let the acquaintance lapse again. My dealings with the Institution itself are of considerably older vintage, but that Institution sits at the bottom of a drained swamp where the average winter temperature is 89 degrees (with tropical humidity), so we don’t see as much of each other as we once did. The magazine, however, ships directly to Boston, where the average winter temperature is 69 degrees (with tropical humidity), which is slightly better.