I Never Talk to Strangers
Earlier this week, I had a chance meeting with an editor from The New Yorker while riding on the subway. I was engrossed in my copy of that magazine, and she was sitting inches to my right, scribbling out notes in brisk flurries of red ink.
She’d look up from her papers in distraction now and then. It was evening and well after dinner time, even for New York City people. She had the look of someone who’d been working continuously since morning, and who could keep on going if she had to.
Ultimately, the editor decided to turn and say hello. She was just past middle age, friendly, with a kind of uncompromising energy that made her seem younger. Most of all, she was just excited to see someone reading the magazine — especially, she said — someone my age.
I was surprised to hear that. Bear in mind this comes from person who works at a publication which is read by over one million subscribers and earns enough revenue to retain a staff of more than 30 editors — All by publishing some of the best long-form journalism in the known universe.
I’ll admit I felt a bit of pride in my ability to play it (relatively) cool and exert some control over the endless supply of nerdy questions on process, workflow and esoteric punctuation choices that swarmed into my head . But more significantly, our conversation reminded me of a few easily neglected facts:
First, that we all enjoy reminders that real people care about what we’re doing.
Second, that New Yorkers are amazing people, and you never know when and where you’ll form lasting new relationships.
And third: That you don’t have to read every single article in the New Yorker for it to be worthwhile. I’ve been meaning to write about that for weeks.
How to Read a Magazine Without Really Trying
Complaining about falling behind on The New Yorker is a favorite pastime for many subscribers. For some, it becomes a strange and significant source of guilt.
I know several long-time fans of the magazine who let their subscriptions lapse now and then, citing how difficult it can be to keep up with 46 issues a year.
To them, it can be too much of a good thing, and they come to feel like the Sorcerer’s Apprentice. New covers multiply in their mail piles, carrying bucket-loads of beautifully-written journalism, painstakingly edited and spun into gratifying story-arcs. The magazines overflow in their foyers and spill out onto the floor.
Somehow, I’ve managed to avoid feeling too guilty when I fall behind.
There are weeks when I’m able to read the New Yorker cover to cover, and I’m a happy person for it. But there are also times when I’ll skip an entire issue or two, barely finding a moment to skim through the cartoons.
Even on the weeks when I can only find time for a single story, it’s still worth every penny. I figure that even if you were to pay the full cover price of $5.99, the magazine is still about half the cost of a pack of cigarettes in New York City. And as a former smoker, I can tell you that any story in there is more satisfying than a cigarette ever was.
If anything, an article in the New Yorker is more like a pipe or a cigar. It’s consumed, not with the fidgety and neurotic posture of an insatiable itch-scratcher, but with the deliberate focus of a Tibetan monk. And unlike smoke, these are stories that last. Reading Ian Fraizer’s article on bankrupt cookie factories left me imbued with scents and memories that will never wash out of my clothes. I’m glad I didn’t miss it, but I’m still able to rest easy — even though I’m certain I’ve missed countless stories that are just as good.
Don’t think that this slimy “self-forgiveness” strategy for coping with information overload is something unique to the internet age. Back in 1923, Claude Hopkins touched on the very same ideas in Scientific Advertising, a guidebook about as thin (and as essential to its field) as Strunk and White’s Elements of Style. He writes:
The average person worth cultivating has too much to read. They skip thee-fourths of the reading matter which they pay to get.
People will not be bored in print. They may listen politely at a dinner table to boasts and personalities, life histories, etc. But in print they choose their own companions, their own subjects.
They want to be amused or benefited. They want economy, beauty, labor saving, good things to eat and wear…
Nobody reads a whole newspaper. One is interested in financial news, one in political, one in society, one in cookery, one in sports, etc. There are whole pages in any newspaper which we ever scan at all. Yet other people may turn directly to those pages.
Some critics, in their general ambivalence about the web, have worried that a day will come when we each have our own version of the daily newspaper. Hopkins reminds us that we always have.
On the weeks that I do get to read the entire New Yorker, I set aside time to swallow whole articles I never thought I’d have an interest in.
I’m sure I come out better for having done it. But the reality remains that, although reading outside our interests is admirable, romantic, gutsy, and can even be life-altering, it’s also not a thing people expect you to do every day.
In those ways, it’s just like making friends with a stranger on the evening train.
(Third-party auditors shows that the average subscriber to the New Yorker spends 81 minutes each week reading the magazine, and like me, still resubscribes year after year.
In the end, I figure it’s a good thing we don’t all know the same stories, anyway. If we did, what would there be to talk about when we finally met?)