Thursday, September 15, 2011

Keeping Magazines Close to Myself

This morning, while I was sleeping, stacks of books next to my bed fell. Call it a quirk of gravity and shoddy stacksmanship.

After breakfast, emptying the dishwasher, and a shave, I got right to it, reorganizing the books according to what I really want to read in the next few weeks. The books next to my bed are crucial. The ones across from my bed, on the other side of my room, I can pull them out whenever I feel like it, whenever some image or some line from another book compels me to seek out more about, say, Walt Disney World, but they remain where they are, the order of those stacks never changing.

As I stacked The Bookseller of Kabul atop The World in Half by Cristina Henriquez (Two I got from Big Lots last week when my dad decided to go there to seek out a new cell phone case), the ones I want to read next after I finish The Secret of Everything by Barbara O'Neal, I spotted a fold-out ad I had received in the mail from The American Poetry Review, offering up the prices for a subscription, and including covers of past issues, and a poem, "The Mysterious Human Heart" by Matthew Dickman, from the November/December 2008 issue. Dickman writes about going to a market in New York, looking for plantains, ginger root, and cilantro. I read the poem, and the desire for a new subscription stirred in me.

I had recently cancelled my subscriptions to Bookmarks and The London Review of Books because I don't enjoy reading book reviews, and by extension, I began to tire of these magazines. Bookmarks was good to see the covers of various upcoming books, and for plot summaries, but what more could I get from that that I haven't already gotten from Amazon and when I need it? I first considered Bookmarks to be a menu of possibilities, but then I determined in the following months that I like to explore on my own. I like to bump into books, to see one that captures my eye on Amazon when I'm looking up another one on the site. I loved my visit to Big Lots because I went to the book section without any idea of what I wanted. I would just know when I found it, and I did in the two aforementioned books, as well as Dog Days by Jon Katz, Eleanor Rigby by Douglas Coupland, and a few others. I didn't need a magazine to tell me what was coming up when I'd probably find out on my own anyway. I like the e-mails from Amazon, the "Best of the Month" ones because they gives me a small taste of what's available and to see what suits me. But it never pushes. I am my own literary explorer.

The only book critic I've ever liked has been Michael Dirda of The Washington Post, and that's because I had discovered his book, Readings: Essays and Literary Entertainment, while browsing Amazon and I loved learning about what sparked him to reading and why he's loved it for decades. I prefer an introduction like that. Show me a critic who started out as an avid reader, who devoured every single book they found, and I will read them, because their words will be suffused with that love, no matter how shoddy the book might be. Dirda's the only one I've found of that stripe so far, though I don't actively search for them.

I never found such personalities in London Review of Books. I learned of it by way of the personal ads it's apparently well-known for, selections that had been published in two books compiled by David Rose. I wanted to see what else this magazine offered and I had been impressed with the broadsheet size of it, that the writers within could concentrate so carefully on books. But what I found was concentration, never a sense of passion, which I suppose wouldn't fly with London Review of Books, unless there was an article by Alan Bennett, in which case it was the quiet passion I appreciated, of a man walking as I do through the vast universe of books, bending down to pick up whatever he finds in front of him, and reading in appreciation. But I never got that impression with the other articles in that magazine. It was as if those writers were sitting on a stately perch, looking down at all the books gathered below them, harumphing and sniffing haughtily about books they happened to read with two fingers perched at the spine, one in the spine and one behind it. It's intellectualism I cannot embrace. When I was reading How to Bake a Perfect Life while walking through the Walmart Supercenter with Mom and Meridith, and I got to the reunion of Ramona and Jonah, my heart swelled up big and I felt like I was going to be pulled up into the air, free to float and fly around in pure happiness. Right then, I wanted the entire world to know about this book. And that's the feeling I want to sense if I happen to read a book review. Dirda has that. Others don't.

So The London Review of Books was out too. But I wasn't searching for a new magazine to subscribe to in the way I was looking for a new hour-long show that I could be as passionate about as The West Wing. My go-to magazines are The New Yorker, Poets & Writers, The Oxford American, and Saveur, which is about food of all cultures and types, about cooking, about living life tasting everything you can and holding in your mouth that which you love so dearly. And it's not just the writing that expresses that, but also the photography. I've never seen food look like this, and only have there been a few times that I have seen it outside of a photograph, such as the Swedish meatballs at IKEA. There is a great comfort to such a dish, including the meatball gravy that goes on top of the mashed potatoes too, as well as the lingonberry sauce. It is like a security blanket. Saveur does that often, exploring what we are passionate about in food. The Oxford American does that with its Southern writing, with culture in much the same way, but publishes its own food issue never often enough.

I latched on to The New Yorker through John Boston, who had worked at The Signal for 30 years as its foremost columnist, humor and otherwise, to the extent that when we moved here and Mom saw his byline often in the paper, she thought he owned it. He was truly the heart and soul in this valley and it was an unforgivable crime when he left the paper after so much shoddy treatment. Boston had issues of The New Yorker on the bookshelves next to his desk, and let me take many of them home for my own perusal. I was fiercely attracted to the cartoons and a few writers, such as Patricia Marx, who is a terrific humorist, and whose second novel, Starting from Happy, I have but I still haven't read it yet. Other books have gotten in the way, also literally, because I'm not sure which stack it's in.

My subscription to The New Yorker lasts until September 2014, since I renewed it last year, and I don't intend to cancel it early, especially because of Amelia Lester, the 27-year-old managing editor, and her restaurant reviews. She lets the details of the restaurants speak for themselves, with slightly bouncy prose that I always enjoy. But what's always bothered me about The New Yorker, even though I know it's because of its prestige, are some writers of articles who get so overexcited about where they are. They're at The New Yorker! Their articles must sound like it with many exclamation points peppered throughout even though there's merely a comma or period there! They have to call their parents and let them know right away that they're in The New Yorker again!

Just write the article. Aim for the prestige that you want so much, but come on, an article about the AIDS epidemic probably should not have that kind of exclamation-point feeling in it. I enjoy that every week is a crapshoot, that I won't know what I'll be getting until I get that e-mail from The New Yorker detailing what's in the next issue. And when I open that e-mail, I cross my fingers and hope for a TV review from Nancy Franklin (my favorite TV critic) and a movie review from Anthony Lane (My favorite film critic, although there are weeks when Josh Bell, the film critic for Las Vegas Weekly supplants him). But I don't enjoy those articles that have that feeling of "OH MY GOD! I'M IN THE NEW YORKER!!!!!" I prefer subtlety in words. The power of an article will emanate from what you write about. John McPhee had no problem doing that. It works.

I get the same feeling from The American Poetry Review as I do with Poets & Writers, a devotion to the attempt at making the written word work in new ways, to reflect different minds, different cultures, different approaches to the world. Like Saveur, I feel like I can hold it close to me. It's mine. I will always find something in the pages to interest me. Just like there will always be food that's new to me to learn about in Saveur, and just like there's always a new method of writing to learn about in Poets & Writers, and just like there's parts of Southern culture new to me to learn about in The Oxford American, I think there will always be a new poem or a few in The American Poetry Review that will wrap its tendrils around my brain and heart, compelling me to reread those words, taking in each one, watching as it connects to the others, seeing what it creates that fires my imagination and makes my heart bloom. I get the same feeling while watching Jeopardy!, except for the emotional parts. I like studying how the questions were written, why they're written in those particular ways. It feels like The American Poetry Review will do that for me too, and why I subscribed for 3 years at $34.50. It's published 6 times a year, and that's a pretty good span of time to absorb the power of any poems that affect me so before the next issue comes out. And the balance of Saveur, The New Yorker, The Oxford American, Poets & Writers, and The American Poetry Review feels right. I can get what I want from all of them and feel satisfied every time.