Ask a Book Question (#57): The Greatest Magazine Ever?

October 25, 2007 | 3 books mentioned 5 6 min read

It’s been a while since we’ve done an “Ask a Book Question” at The Millions, but Kirk from Texas left a good one in the comments of a recent post:

You write a lot about your obsession with The New Yorker… Can you tell those of us that are unfamiliar with the publication more about it, and why you like it so much.

I love The New Yorker for many reasons. I prefer to know a little about a lot of things rather than a lot about a few, and so I find the wide range of topics the magazine takes on is appealing. It’s a surprising unpredictable magazine. I also like that the magazine has history, and that it has stayed true to itself by changing only incrementally over the years and for the most part taking pains to make sure any changes made sense. Generally speaking, The New Yorker is guaranteed to provide me with at least one transcendent reading experience per month, often more than that, and very few clunkers. It is exceedingly rare that I quit reading an article halfway through. By that measure alone it beats any other magazine I’ve ever picked up.

I could go on about The New Yorker for pages, but instead, I thought I’d let some others spill some ink on their love for the magazine. We’ll start with Emily Gordon, who heads up Emdashes, a blog devoted to a single magazine. I’ll let you guess which one.

When I tell people I write a blog about The New Yorker, they’re either excited and ask for the url, or freaked out. The people in the second group get that funny look so familiar to elementary-school students and poets, and say with withering irony, “Wow, you must really LOVE it.” Being an unfashionable enthusiast and advocate of the New Sincerity, I answer simply that I do.

In his email asking for my thoughts about the magazine, Max called me “the Web’s pre-eminent NYer expert.” I wish! I’m reminded every time I go to a New Yorker-themed event–especially on the Upper West Side–that there are far more fanatical and expert readers out there, and they usually have a couple decades of subscribership on me, too. In my paying work life, I’m a magazine editor and a book and media critic, so that’s the spirit in which I write the blog. At the same time, I sometimes feel like a roving preacher from a quirky sect, with all the attendant longing for clarity and community, and possibly some of the narrow-mindedness and naivete, too. Meanwhile, perhaps also like an evangelist, I get to experience moments, collectively and alone, of overpowering delight and that spooky but real phenomenon called “flow.” (Also, the blogosphere being what it is, moments of derision, bafflement, and the sound of stone silence.) Man, I sound like Garrison Keillor. My real point is, I’ve made a lot of wonderful friends who feel the way I do, and despite moments of overextended self-doubt, I’m grateful for all of this.

But back to the reason for reading it in the first place. I read Walter Benjamin’s “Unpacking My Library” recently, and wrote down this line: “Every passion borders on the chaotic, but the collector’s passion borders on the chaos of memories.” That’s probably at the heart of it. I’m a third-generation New Yorker reader, and the magazine’s writers and artists are essential to both sides of family language and lore. When I was at the Daniel Alarcon and Zadie Smith reading at the most recent New Yorker Festival, in a beautiful church-like space called the Angel Orensanz Foundation, I had the strange thought that I was in the only church my parents (who are long-divorced atheists) would ever have attended. I got a little teary thinking about them, in the Church of The New Yorker with its Chastian or Steinbergian heaven, and hey, I was the one who said I was an evangelist. “This isn’t a magazine–it’s a movement.” Harold Ross said that.

So what do I preach? That the magazine, far from a bastion of elitism and snobbery, is the site of the most hardworking and stirring journalism available in English, about essential subjects like New Orleans, the global environmental crisis, American poverty, education, and the war in Iraq. Some people will never agree; they think the whole thing is foolish. “Tell me why your project is so compelling or should be to someone like me who DESPISES the culture of writing that the NEW YORKER inspires and finds literary glomming to be complete bullshit,” an acerbic fellow blogger once wrote me, sneeringly. He thinks the publishing-industrial complex needs taking down, not celebrating. I defended myself in the lengthy email exchange, but afterward I felt like my soul had been slapped to the floor, as in that scene in Amelie. I was so outraged but so suddenly unsure of my mission that I thought of shutting down the site entirely, taking my ball and going home, as my friend Tom would say; it’s a little like the way I felt when I heard, just recently, that a New Yorker film critic (for the Goings on About Town listings, which contain some of the sharpest and wittiest writing in the magazine) refers to me as “the New Yorker groupie.” Ow.

On the other hand, there are lots of worse things to be. Steve Martin wrote in the magazine this week that he sometimes feels nostalgic for the “high spirits and high jinks” of his early career, “before I turned professional, before comedy became serious.” Maybe The New Yorker, too, is best viewed from one’s childhood coffee table, before it becomes a media outlet, a buzz-worthy blog topic, an online brand, a symbol of what one has, in some senses, lost: the life of Pauline Kael; the grandparents who understood fewer and fewer of the cartoons and became sorrowful about it; the vast possibilities of a future full of limitless writing and reading opportunities. But for now, I’ve got a way of broadcasting my–let’s face it–devotion. Want to be saved? Subscribe. I’m only half kidding.

Millions contributor Garth also weighed in with his thoughts on the magazine:

I was trying to explain to a friend the other weekend why The New Yorker is the greatest magazine in the history of American magazine journalism. I can think of a few reasons.

First, I love The New Yorker for the assumptions it makes about its readership. It assumes that we are bright, literate, patient, and curious about the world. (Okay, it also assumes that we’re well-off and liberal, but that’s less important). It assumes that I, who loathed biology in high school, will be fascinated and moved by 8,000 words on the redwoods…and lo and behold, I am. Rather than tailoring itself to the marketplace, which is how we now think of the publishing place, The New Yorker recognizes that it CREATES its marketplace. Which is why I hate to see it stoop to puff-pieces on Cate Blanchett or Mariah Carey.

Second, I find the history of The New Yorker, and its attendant myths, endlessly fascinating. One example: Jamaica Kincaid was doing odd-jobs for editor William Shawn when he decided that she should write for the magazine. She and George Trow and Ian Frazier became an inseparable, and eccentric triumvirate. Later, she married Mr. Shawn’s son Allen.

Third, The New Yorker has subsidized a staggering (surprising) number of canonical writers. E.B. White? New Yorker. J.D. Salinger? New Yorker. The Fire Next Time? First ran in the New Yorker. Silent Spring? Likewise. Eichmann in Jerusalem? You guessed it. Oliver Sacks, Joseph Mitchell, Alistair Reid, Janet Malcolm, Calvin Trillin, Philip Gourevich, Pauline Kael, A.J. Liebling, James Thurber, William Steig, the Addams Family, John Cheever, Saul Steinberg… Among the current writers, Elizabeth Kolbert, Georges Packer and Saunders, Nick Paumgarten (the new Ian Frazier), Peter Schjeldahl, Mark Singer, and James Wood (as of last month), are all doing work that may still entertain and instruct years from now. This is not even to mention the art.

Each week, The New Yorker delivers a multi-course meal (about four-hours worth) of reporting, opinion, reviews, cartoons, and humorous “casuals” to my door. Sometimes the meal is mediocre, but it’s always sustaining.

And finally, Millions contributor Noah brings us home:

I don’t have a subscription, though I once did. It started sort of piling up on me, making me feel like an arch procrastinator. I’d like to renew but I haven’t gotten around to it yet. But one thing about The New Yorker: you can pick up an issue, be it this week’s, last week’s, or one from 1987, and it always reads. This is surely a testament to the quality of the writing, but also to the editorial sensibilities that drive the magazine. My most memorable New Yorker article was about Rafael Perez, disgraced and incarcerated LAPD officer, who testified for the state in the prosecution of numerous other LA cops who were part of the Rampart Crash unit, a renegade police outfit that committed numerous crimes. Denzel Washington’s character in the movie Training Day was based on Perez. Perez has also been rumored to have had a hand in the murder of Biggie Smalls. Great article. The cartoons are fun too.

created The Millions and is its publisher. He and his family live in New Jersey.


  1. If I may add – my laziness and busy-ness precluded me from submitting comments earlier.

    My girlfriend is an avid New Yorker reader. In fact, she is obseessed. She usually receives the week's New Yorker on Tuesday – and, you can tell. She 'selectively' devours its articles – which amounts to most of the magazine – and then tosses it my way.

    I concur with the above writes on all their respective points – namely that the writing is amazing; that there is always at least one appetizing, meaty article; and that one might inevitably feel like the world's greatest slacker for not reading (duh!) everything all the time and in time to stay on top of the monster that is the New Yorker.

    The one criticism I would have is that the magazine has this self aggrandizing mechanism that inexplicably justifies publishing articles reagardless of a basic journalistic pillar: timeliness.

    At least once a month, the New Yorker will have an article – and granted, it might be the best piece you read on the subject – that could be as much as six months old, i.e., six months after the story broke and everyone from the New York Times to the Washington Post, WSJ, the AP, Reuters, BBC, Forbes, CNN, Fortune and, hell, even Fox weighed in on the issue. So, that's my only beef with the New Yorker. And that I can't read it cover to cover like all it's devotees seem to. But those aside, it's probably the greatest literary and journalistic feat ever – ever, ever.

  2. "When I was at the Daniel Alarcon and Zadie Smith reading at the most recent New Yorker Festival…"

    I love both those authors. Alarcón's "War by Candelight" is hip, I liked it better than O. Wao and I plan to read "Lost City Radio."

  3. I love the profiles and reviews. I'm not a huge fan of the fiction. For some reason, I have a hard time getting into short stories. I have The Complete New Yorker on CD-ROM and I used to subscribe to the magazine. But unfortunately, too often I found the issues piling up without my having a chance to read them. I keep thinking maybe I'll go back. But now, I'm more likely to glance through the contents in the bookstore and buy it if there's a specific article I want to read.

  4. My husband and I are both avid fans (and readers) of The New Yorker. I love how the magazine introduces me to ideas and stories I would not have thought would interest me. And I agree with Noah's description about the staying power of its content. I have gone back and read editions from many years ago and they come alive even today.

    Does anyone remember Nicholas Cage's description of a New Yorker feature: Sprawling New Yorker Shit? When we get our weekly copy, my husband often rubs his hands and smiles: Aah, now for some sprawling New Yorker shit ;-)

    Our only complaint — no lifetime subscriptions and of course, the twice-a-year Style Guides.

  5. I'm in agreement with just about all the observations here. A question for the regular readers: If you don't share your subscription, who do you talk to about the articles? Is there a higher density of readers in your geography?

    Here, in the Washington, DC area, we've started a discussion group. We get together at a cafe or coffee shop every other week. Between 4 and 8 articles are selected from the previous two issues. Most of the time we'll have discussion questions. It's like a book club, but for TNY.

    We've got a couple of openings, so if you'd like to participate, shoot us an email.

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