a problem of distance

Increasingly often, these days, I find myself picking up a magazine I subscribe to, starting to read, and then putting it aside with a sigh. The problem is simply that I do not see as well as I used to: as I’ve gotten older my eyesight has gotten worse in complicated ways, and the optometric arts only imperfectly compensate for these changes.

This creates more difficulties for me when reading magazines than when reading books, because the print is often smaller in magazines, and magazines, being larger than books, especially paperbacks, can be more awkward to hold. I can usually hold a paperback in one hand and move it closer or farther away, as necessary, until I find the right distance; and then when my hand gets tired I can switch to the other. Hardcovers are heavier and more awkward to hold, but their solidity allows them to be partially propped up — on my chest as I’m lying down, for instance — which makes the task of reading less of an upper-body workout. (Though Lord knows I need more of an upper-body workout, I don’t want to combine that with the act of reading.) But magazines are floppy, especially if they’re large-format — as are some of my favorites, including Books & Culture and The New York Review of Books — and I have to hold my hands farther apart to read them . . . It’s really starting to bug me.

And of course this is happening because the Kindle and the iPad have provided an alternative reading ergonomic: if book or magazine print seems small to me now, and I have to adjust my arm position to find the right distance from my eyes, I can never now forget that it is much, much easier to hold the thing to be read wherever it feels comfortable and simply adjust the size of the type. This knowledge that there is a Better Way intensifies the annoyance but is also a distraction — instead of focusing on the article to be read I’m thinking, “Why isn’t there a Kindle version of this magazine?” or “Now, why exactly did I subscribe to the print edition of this magazine?”

There are a great many people like me in this respect, and there will be more of them in the coming years. Any periodical that doesn’t have a very clear, very fast-developing plan to make itself available to e-reader and iPad users is going to be in a lot of trouble, and soon.

support culture!

Some years ago Cullen Murphy, then editor of The Atlantic, told me in an email exchange that in his view John Wilson is one of the best editors around. And I’ve heard this from some other eminent authorities as well. In case you don’t know, John edits Books and Culture, which is subtitled “A Christian Review” — but if you haven’t read the magazine, you might be misled by that. B&C is indeed shaped by Christian belief, but key to that belief is the conviction that the world God has made is endlessly interesting in all sorts of ways, and that all sorts of people can help us to understand it better. So while the magazine does feature narrow-minded, blinkered, provincial evangelicals like yours truly — and incredibly learned Christian scholars like Mark Noll — and gifted Christian writers like Lauren Winner — it also features writers you are likely to find in some of America’s most distinguished periodicals. The issue that arrived on my doorstep yesterday, for instance, features articles by Alan Wolfe and John McWhorter. I don’t think there’s a better magazine in America.

Like many magazines today, B&C ain’t rolling in dough, and could really use your financial support. A subscription would be nice, but you can also make a gift contribution here. Please consider doing so.
Oh, and go ahead and subscribe to The New Atlantis while you’re at it. Spend all the money Grandma gave you for Christmas on good causes. Future generations will thank you. Seriously.

a lengthy post

The well-known computer scientist/entrepreneur Philip Greenspun has a recent post which is an interesting combination of insight and nonsense. Nonsense first. Greenspun writes, “The pre-1990 commercial publishing world supported two lengths of manuscript: 1. the five-page magazine article, serving as filler among the ads; 2. the book, with a minimum of 200 pages.” What? Has Greenspun ever actually looked at “pre-1990” newspapers and magazines? If by “the commercial publishing world” he means Time and Newsweek, he’s not too far off; otherwise. . . . Now, he does acknowledge that “a handful of long-copy magazines, such as the old New Yorker would print 20-page essays.” (Not sure what he means by “old” in that sentence.) Yes, and Esquire and the Atlantic and Harper’s and Playboy and Rolling Stone and The New Republic and the New York Review of Books and a great many literary and cultural quarterlies that paid their contributors; and then there were all thee venues for shorter pieces, 800-word op-eds and the like. Oh, and then there's the notion that there has ever been a 200-page minimum for books. . . . So: nonsense. But the larger point of the post is an insightful one, or at least would have been if Greenspun had developed it more clearly. Let me do it myself. When you’re writing for a newspaper or magazine, especially if you’ve been commissioned to write something, you always have a rough word limit in mind. A little experience teaches you whether there’s a fit between an idea and a word limit. Sometimes I have turned down a writing assignment because I didn't think I could do it in the number of words available; sometimes I have said “I couldn't do it at 1500 words, but I could do it in 4000” — and I have found that editors tend to be open to such counter-proposals if they’re allowed the flexibility. And of course, while in “commercial publishing” there is and always has been much greater variation in article or story length than Greenspun acknowledges, it’s true that different publications specialize in different lengths; so when you have an idea that you know is going to come to a certain number of words once it gets written, and you’re thinking about where to send it or pitch it, you don't just think about the editorial stances of possible outlets, you also think about the length of article they typically publish. Greenspun’s point is that online writing eliminates these concerns. When you’re writing for web publication you can just write what you want and need to write, because there are no word limits as such. Now, there still will be appropriate lengths for the development of a given idea — incoherent rambling is incoherent rambling, whether in print or pixels — but there are no artificially imposed ceilings. And the more prominent e-readers become — as I have suggested in this post — the more this wil be true in that environment as well.

the end of book reviews?

By which I mean not the reviewing of books but the kind of newspaper section called a book review, as in the New York Times Book Review or the Washington Post Book World, which may be closing down. I am not sure how much to be worried about this. For much of their history newspapers have not reviewed books at all — going back to the eighteenth century and through almost all of the nineteenth, book reviewing was largely the province of other kinds of periodicals — and few newspapers have ever had whole sections devoted to book reviews. Are we about to see considerably fewer book reviews altogether? Or are we just faced with a kind of dispersal of book reviewing into more and more varied locations?

UPDATE: See Alex Massie’s post on this subject from 2007.