Thursday, August 6, 2015

The World Through a Monocle

In late July, I discovered by accident that I had complete access to the archives of The New Yorker. I was aware that the magazine, which I'd read since I was a precocious grade-schooler, had past articles on display on their web site. I assumed incorrectly that you needed to pay a fee (my mail subscription sufficed) and that the articles were available were available only by searching by topic. So rarely am I ever so glad to be dead wrong.

The New Yorker was another one of those quick reads that molded my malleable mindset as I grew up in the Chicago suburbs. I have always been a voracious reader, and even in second grade was I aware of this magazine's status as a brass ring of intellectual savvy. Of course, upon first reading The New Yorker about 90% of my interest was in the cartoons; they were never knee-slapping funny, but witty and urbane enough to draw the attention of a bookish tween. Eventually my attention veered to Shouts & Murmurs, the short humor piece that ended each issue in the '90s and early 2000s. Then I was reading the film and theater reviews, then "Talk of the Town," then pretty much reading the whole damn thing cover to cover, rather than skimming half of the articles.

When I wrote about Playboy and MAD magazine a couple of years ago, I commented on how that particular magazine had progressed over the years. What was astonishing about reading vintage issues of The New Yorker was how little it changed. The layout of the magazine, beginning with "Goings On About Town" and a tiny table of contents on page 2 or 4, was set in late 1925... and didn't change until 1988 or so, when the contents got its own page. It was black and white and rather staid, yet straight to the point. Of course, substance came before anything else; the quality of writing, from the short fiction to profiles to literary criticism, hardly wavered. How it was presented was irrelevant.

Additionally, the sophisticated aesthetic of the magazine, especially in the early years of the magazine both gave the magazine character and proved at times a hindrance. Reading the "Talk of the Town" in any issue from the 1920s well into the 1950s has the feel of an inside joke, isolated in time even though the only people that found it funny are long dead. In short, it was the anti-MAD magazine nearly 30 years before Bill Gaines and Harvey Kurtzman joined forces. As the famed "Hiroshima" issue from 1946 proved, the editors weren't afraid to be deadly serious, either.

Alas, nothing can stop the slow train of progress, and that's where Tina Brown enters. Her arrival as editor-in-chief in 1992 shook up the stodgy, aristocratic air of the magazine's Times Square offices: "Talk of The Town" was less anecdotal and more op-ed, the page-to-page layout was tweaked, color images graced the editorial content, legendary photographer Richard Avedon was brought aboard to contribute those aforementioned images. Acknowledging the graphic novel as an art form, Brown also tapped "Maus" creator Art Speigelman to draw original essays for the magazine. Even the contents page, a weird little afterthought for so long, became more detailed. The WASP bluebloods were dying or fading into irrelevance, Brown assumed correctly; the left-leaning intellectual was the anchor was now the magazine's present and future. The old lady in Dubuque will still be on the outside looking in.

Compared to the other periodicals that I read regularly, The New Yorker can be the most time-consuming, the most challenging, and sometimes the most rewarding. I had outgrown young adult literature before anyone else I knew, and even if the leap was a little too big, I don't regret it. Access to 90 years of world class writing is more than just bridging the gap; it's providing further nourishment.


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