Recently I was talking with a friend of mine, as well-read a young man as you’re likely to meet all week, and he related a fascinating – and disturbing – thing: facing an hours-long trip, he bought a copy of the current Atlantic and a copy of the new Vanity Fair to read on the way, and he found there to be no contest between the two in terms of general literary merit.

Vanity Fair won hands-down.

This is disturbing for the same reason that it’s fascinating: it’s supposed to go the other way. Atlantic has a century-long reputation as the pinnacle, the showcase of periodical literary merit; Vanity Fair too has a long reputation of occupying a pinnacle – but a different one, a pinnacle of stylish and exuberant celebrity gossip. Both have been indispensable magazines forever – but they’ve been separate and fairly distant peaks in the same mountain range. I’ve praised both often here at Stevereads, and I’ve also commented on what struck me as a general dumbing-down of the Atlantic (staved off only by virtue of the brilliance of some of its regular contributors, foremost being Benjamin Schwarz) and a general deepening of Vanity Fair‘s content under leadership of the visionary and irritating-as-hell Graydon Carter. So this switcheroo shouldn’t really surprise me – but it was jarring to hear it as an assessment made by somebody else, somebody who perhaps doesn’t watch the Penny Press quite as avidly as I do.

There’s undeniable truth to the assessment. The latest Atlantic was so relatively unremarkable that I felt no compunction to write about it, whereas the August Vanity Fair is so chock-full of fantastic, interesting, challenging stuff that virtually any potential reader will find something to keep them reading. The issue wisely opens with humor, the redoubtable James Wolcott writing with his usual zest, this time about the arrest of I.M.F. chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn for sexual assault:

Devouring the news reports, you could picture [Law & Order‘s] Jerry Orbach’s Lennie Briscoe and Chris Noth’s Mike Logan cavalierly parting the curtains separating executive class from the peasantry, spotting the suspect, identifying themselves as N.Y.P.D., and ordering the suspect to unbuckle his seat belt and take a little ride with them downtown. After receiving the requisite amount of indignant lip from the suspect about important meetings in Brussels to attend, and how this is all a terrible mistake, Lennie would crack, “Sorry, pal, consider yourself grounded.”

Wolcott strikes a very welcome note of reminder that what this guy is charged with is no laughing matter – but he also can’t resist going for chuckles himself whenever he can:

But Americans like to rag on the French, as the fatuous renaming of French fries as “freedom fries” during the Iraq war showed, and the Frenchification of the case had the ooh-la-la effect of making the scandal seem almost cute. And when journalists get cute, something curdles inside.

Of course, the magazine will never entirely forget its roots: Alexandra Wolfe turns in an appropriately soapy ‘profile’ of something called Emma Stone. This creature appears to feature somehow in movies, but the photo accompanying the article is the single most disturbing non-Cute Overload image I’ve seen all year. The life-form in the photo has a head the size of a State Fair pumpkin and no arms, no legs, no breasts, no muscles, no tendons, no circulating blood, no belly, and no buttocks. I didn’t read the piece, of course (that way lies madness), but I can’t help but wonder what kind of roles this thing could play. Whitley Streiber-style aliens, I’m assuming.

Most of the issue is deadly serious, however – and wonderfully unapologetic about that fact. There’s a gripping excerpt from a new book by Robbyn Swan and the great Anthony Summers that look at the links between the 9/11 terrorists and Saudi Arabia – 15 of the hijackers on that day were Saudis, and it’s all but impossible to believe they were operating without the knowledge – or outright financial support – of the U.S.’s alleged ally. The piece – and, one imagines, the book – digs as deep as it can into the connection between the Saudi royal family and the funding of al-Qaeda. The main thing that stonewalls their investigations is the angering fact that most of the key documents have been completely redacted – on direct orders of former President George W. Bush.

(Angering in a lesser way is the interview the insufferable Dave Eggers conducts with cranky old childrens book illustrator Maurice Sendak about his new book Bumble-Ardy. “I called him the other day to talk about it …”)

Edward Klein turns in a chatty (and equally stonewalled – I lost track of how many times I read a variation on “The Palace refused to comment”) piece on the Queen’s wayward, scumbag son Prince Andrew and his “sybaritic lifestyle” – which apparently includes underage girls and convicted sex offenders. Reading it made me squirm with vicarious embarrassment, and it made me certain that in due course I’ll be writing about Prince Andrew’s arraignment in an American court of law – watch for it in “Keeping Up with the Windsors.”

There’s so much more in this single issue, like Tracy Daugherty’s engrossing look at the origins of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, but for me the most intense – and saddest – piece was Alex Shoumatoff’s harrowing report on the recent resurgence of elephant-poaching throughout central Africa. He interviews many of the people engaged in a daily struggle to protect elephants (the article is accompanied by a recent photo of Iain Douglas-Hamilton looking typically masterful but so old – it made me apprehensive about a day when Africa’s elephants will lose their most passionate human protector) and relates a tiny fraction of the lore that has connected humans with elephants throughout the entire history of mankind, although he’s careful to maintain the distinction:

But elephants are not human, of course. They are something much more ancient and primordial, living on a different plane of existence. Long before we arrived on the scene, they worked out a way of being in the world that has not fundamentally changed and is sustainable, and not predatory or destructive. We have been in close association with elephants from the beginning. The few dozen humans who left Africa may have even followed an elephant trail, but the prodoscideans are on a distant branch of the tree of life, closer to manatees and aardvarks than to primates. It is amazing, really, that something so antediluvian and unlike us is still here. This is the feeling we get as we are watching these elephants. They are what they are, and they put things into badly needed perspective. The world needs them. We need them.

Of course you finish the article completely convinced that we are living in the last days of the wild elephant – and by extension the last days of non-human ‘apex’ animals of every kind: polar bears losing their habitat, sharks being hunted to extinction, tigers virtually non-existent in the wild, etc). This is staggering, sobering stuff, but at least a thin note of thanks is due to Shoumatoff for writing so sharply about it all.

It’s only right to extend that vote of thanks to the whole of Vanity Fair, which manages to produce an issue as good as this one every single month. And free of charge, I’ve got a solution to the disturbing dilemma my friend (and I, and every reader of the best magazines) experienced: Vanity Fair should hire Ben Schwarz and give him a nice roomy monthly column devoted to books. There! Problem solved! Mr. Carter, kindly make a generous offer (and while you’re at it, I’d be happy to BLOG for VF, but don’t expect me to update my wardrobe – if it was good enough in 1960, it’s good enough now, dammit).