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.
As I’ve confessed from time to time, I have a weakness for lad-mags. On some level this is probably wrong: I certainly recognize their, shall we say, severe cognitive limitations. They’re marketed to – and, increasingly, produced by – over-moneyed over-sexed twenty-something American men … i.e. the single dumbest demographic anywhere in the world. This is bound to be reflected in their contents, and sure enough, most of these magazines promote with fascist repetition a rigidly bracketed idea of what it is to be a man. You treat women like some kind of delicate, exotic rainforest life-form – open doors for them, pretend to listen to them, pay for their food at restaurants, etc. … all smeared with an almost purple condescension. You concentrate to a dizzyingly focussed degree on your own body – you soak up ‘tips’ on how to order drinks and drink them, how to smoke (because it’s so cool), how to work out (even though any kind of exercise is utterly pointless if you also smoke – no amount of kettle-belling can compensate for sucking carcinogens deep into your lungs thirty times a day), how to dress, etc.. You treat the world as if it were specially ordered up and stocked with stuff an’ shit just for you – blast your SUV to that remote mountain range! Scream ‘Hells yeah!’ as you kayak that pristine jungle waterfall! Drink yourself hoarse at that trendy Balinese resort (try not to look at the dispossessed natives on your way there)! The front half of virtually every ‘lad mag’ is a carefully annotated and updated handbook in how to be an Ugly American. The idea is that you owe yourself these indulgences, because eventually you’re gonna let one of those exotic rainforest creatures marry you (even though, on a personal level, you’ll never be all that committed to the relationship or even like her that much)(and it’s utterly unthinkable that she will be a he), you’re gonna sire a couple of kids (even though you have zero interest in being a parent and don’t even like kids all that much), and you’re gonna spend 15 hours a day every day at the office, until you retire at 75.
You’d think that facing a life of such staggering, crushing conformity would make these feckless 20-something young men all the more eager to embrace their individuality while they can, but the very LAST thing any ‘lad-mag’ talks about – the thing they all strenuously avoid even imagining – is individuality on the part of their readers. No, if everybody’s going to Cabo this year, you’ll run ten features on Cabo. One suspects there’s ad money involved.
The reason I’m a faithful ‘lad-mag’ reader is because all that is only usually the front half of any issue. The back half can contain some surprisingly interesting and even intellectually satisfying articles, and that puts these magazines ahead of quite a few more high-brow stuff on the market (if you manage to wade through the wheezing pretension in the front half of any Paris Review, all you’ve got is … more wheezing pretension). And I sneakily admit: some of that brainless stuff in the front half can be fun too.
Take the latest Outside, for instance. This is one of their regular ‘Survival’ issues, complete with an “Apocalypse Handbook” featuring the low-down on such calamities as earthquakes, plagues, tornadoes, nuclear meltdowns, and erupting volcanoes. I myself have lived through half a dozen of the disasters they outline, and I found their advice either laughably simple or distressingly off-topic (believe it or not – and you probably will – what they’re really trying to do is show you to the cool way to survive these things).
But if you get through features like that, you reach stuff with more, um, bite – like Joshua Hammer (and I’m given grief about my pen-names…)’s article on the rise of shark-attacks in the vicinities of cage-diving outfits that pump tons of chum into the water in order to guarantee their paying customers up-close encounters with great white sharks. Hammer went to South Africa, talked with officials, fishermen, attack survivors, and cage-diving operators. He went down in a cage himself. And his narrative crackles with energy and clarity – this is colorful, involving reporting at its best, and if you didn’t wade through the “Shred it up, dude!” nonsense at the front of the issue, you’d never get to it.
There’s usually less of a wading problem with Esquire, one of the venerable granddaddies of lad-mags. They’ve got a long history and an established stable of great writers, and even their inanities are generally pitched slightly higher than the bro’s-and-brews crowd. So it’s not exactly illustrative of my purposes here that the August issue was the lightest, most idiotic they’ve produced in quite some time (starting with that hideous cover, which takes their current ill-conceived notion of the over-crowded cover and ups it a notch). But even in a lightweight issue like this one, if you do enough wading, you’ll get to the cool, inviting depths: in this case, a another fantastic bit of narrative journalism: Charles Pierce writes about a parcel-bomb that almost went off in Spokane, Washington in January. It was spotted by civic workers and spirited away by alert and fast-acting crisis management teams, and there was no tragedy, and Pierce uses the near-miss to contemplate the disaffection and anger that had to go into getting that parcel made and deposited on a park bench in the first place – and, connectedly, the people who want to stir that disaffection and anger:
When Michele Bachmann, a member of Congress, states publicly that she is running for president “to take our country back,” she is not talking about clawing back the money and jobs and basic security that were sluiced away into the investment banks. She’s focusing those fears and that insecurity on one person and on what she believes he represents. Politicians used to say that they would bring America back, or that they would restore America to its former greatness, or wrap their policies in some such fluffy rhetorical excelsior. Today, though, it is perfectly acceptable to intimate, as Bachmann does, and as those hundreds of people at the congressional town meetings said outright, that America is not here anymore. That someone has stolen it away. America is no longer a political commonwealth of shared ideas that its citizens can restore. It is objectified, something tangible, something that a stranger has broken in and stolen. And if that’s the case, why be surprised when someone tries to take “our country back” the way you might confront a midnight prowler in the living room?
Of course, sometimes a lad-mag is just a lad-mag. When I was offered a subscription to Details magazine for pocket-change, I said yes for two reasons: first, I love getting stuff in the mail, and second, I’ve always had a macabre curiosity to know just how shallow the shallow end of this particular pool is. Even Outside and my beloved Men’s Journal at least assume their bro-centric readers CAN read – Details seems a bit worried on that score. This is lad-magging at its least common denominator, practically color-coded for ‘food’ ‘clothing’ and ‘lingerie.’ And as I’ve discovered after six issues, absolutely no amount of wading will ever get you any deeper than your shins. The back of the latest issue, for instance, features a profile-piece by Aaron Gell of Shia LaBeouf. Years ago here at Stevereads, I predicted that LaBeouf would flip out in fairly short order and have some sort of public meltdown – and I little knew how right I was! Since I made that prediction four years ago, this young tobacco addict has had by my count five public meltdowns (including one specifically about being a tobacco addict) – but I was wrong about it torpedoing his career. No, by closely allying himself with a movie franchise in which the flesh-and-blood human actors are demonstrably interchangeable, he’s so far managed to become hugely wealthy (in Gell’s article, he’s at least refreshingly candid about his wealth) without actually testing his perhaps wobbly acting muscles. So what is he pining to do next? Why, test his perhaps wobbly acting muscles, of course! At one point we’re rather hilariously told:
But Labeouf, who also starred in Disturbia and Eagle Eye, isn’t in it for the money. After a number of well-compensated roles that did little to showcase his talent, he is aware that he still has plenty to prove. “I am trying to impress myself,” LaBeouf says. “I have yet to do it.”
Maybe now that he’s done his apparently pro bono work on Transformers 3: Ka-Boom he’ll have a clearer shot at impressing himself. Certainly he had good moments in Eagle Eye, so anything’s possible.
Well, anything except perhaps depth in Details. But let’s not ask for miracles.