14 May 2009

Information In

When I first moved here, I used to make fun of my friend Michael for the way he almost religiously read The New Yorker, and vowed never to fall prey to what I saw as the cliché of being the new guy in town who immediately took out a subscription to it.

And I resisted for a while, just as I resisted the incessant pledge drive imprecations of WNYC, the local NPR outlet. But seeing as how I listened pretty much exclusively to WNYC (all the while complaining how pathetic it was when compared with my beloved BBC), I finally started feeling guilty about being a mooch. When I realized that you could get a "free" New Yorker subscription for donating to WNYC, I said what the hell; as long as I was getting two things for the price of one (I could have done them both separately for less money, but never mind), and I bit the bullet.

Now I'd had a New Yorker subscription once before, way back in the 70s, during that brief interval between glam rock and punk rock when, for want of any other way to justify my existence, tried to re-invent myself as a tortured intellectual. But I found that I couldn't keep up with it; there was just too much to read, and the issues would pile up on the cabinet in my bathroom until they seemed to begin leering at me for being such a lazy, inattentive bastard, and I'd toss another batch out into... well, I don't think they had recycling yet, so probably into the trash, which adds to the shame. About the time the Dead Kennedys formed I let my subscription lapse and never gave the magazine much more thought until, as I say, my friend Michael began annoying me with it.

But something had apparently changed over the years (okay, decades), because I now found The New Yorker much more interesting, and was even able to make my way - on occasion - through an entire issue before next week's copy showed up. Until, that is, I began receiving offers from other magazines who apparently inferred from my presence on the New Yorker subscription list that I was their type of reader. You know, thoughtful, concerned, intellectual, involved (they actually said things in their pitches; I didn't make them up).

Well, let me admit right here: I was flattered. Perhaps my re-invention as an intellectual had taken hold after all, a mere 30-some years after the fact. And before I knew it, I had also become a subscriber to the New York Review of Books and the London Review of Books. And of course I still had my weekly copy of the good old Anderson Valley Advertiser to keep me apprised of the goings-on in Boonville and Mendocino County.

Result: on one hand, I feel rather clever most days. Reading this sort of publication on a regular basis, especially the New York and London Reviews, is a bit like being enrolled in university, maybe even at the graduate level. I'm constantly being exposed to people, events and concepts whose existence (or reason for existing) had never occurred to me. On the other hand, I also felt like a university student because of the way I could never get caught up with my reading assignments. I could maybe get through one of the magazines in a week, plus my AVA, but that's about it, leaving me to wonder, in the case of the New York or London Review of Books, who, by the time they'd read all the reviews, could possibly have any time to read any actual books? I further wondered how anyone who had an actual job could even come close to absorbing this much reading material, but then the question of how people with jobs find time to do anything at all is a frequent source of perplexity to me.

I think a big part of my problem is my approach to reading, however. I suspect normal people leaf through these magazines until they find articles that interest them and then read them. Not me. No, I have to start at the beginning and read it cover to cover, including the small ads at the back. Doesn't matter if it's a 12-page article on the provenance of the thread used in medieval wall hangings in western Belgium, I feel it's my duty to absorb all this information that's being proffered up to me. And, I note, that I've paid cold, hard cash for, even though all my subscriptions are relatively cheap.

This, I fear, is the result of being raised by a couple of Depression-era parents, who instilled in from infancy a horror of wasting anything. No, it's more than horror, it's a sense of enormous moral failure if I don't happily and gratefully consume everything that is put in front of me. Those children starving in China and Africa, should they have somehow managed to survive, will be grateful to know that I seldom let a pea or a carrot go astray, gag as I may have done while forcing them down so I could join "The Clean Plate Club" and earn my dessert, and if today somewhere there are children desperate for the knowledge to be gleaned from upper-middlebrow periodicals, I hope they'll rest comfortably tonight knowing that I'm making a valiant effort to absorb it for them.

But while doing some housecleaning today, I finally had to toss out a few issues dating back to December or January that appeared to have some unread articles (sometimes it's hard to tell, as I've certain pieces so dense that by the time I've finished them I have no idea what I've just learned, except that it feels really heavy). Believe me, it was painful, and I'm still not convinced I won't do time in literary purgatory for having done so. In the meantime, I've got to get to the city, which means stuffing a some recent issues into my backpack and frantically trying to get through an article or two in the seven stops from my house to 6th Avenue. Yes, I have also become that other New York cliché, the guy who does all his reading on the subway. But boy will I have a lot of interesting stuff to talk about if I ever find a spare minute to talk to somebody.

1 comment:

AdRock said...

I totally hear you, my bathroom looks exactly the same way--but if you're reading those things cover to cover, then you clearly don't have kids--and you might not even have a job (if I read this blog more often maybe I'd know). Anyway, Mark Danner's recent two-parter in NYRB on the torture memos was amazing. And for New Yorker quick hits, I thoroughly enjoy the Talk of the Town and occasionally Sasha Frere-Jones on pop music. (And in the music listings in the front, they even tend to know what they're talking about when highlighting the occasional the punk band...)