Periodicals for eggheads
At all events the following thoughts reflect a question recently raised in the columns of the Gay Species. In this age of transition, what intellectual periodicals should one read?
As a teenager in LA I started reading one that is now (deservedly) defunct. That was The Saturday Review of Literature. That weekly was a classic case of dumbing down to reach a broader audience. I do remember encountering a fascinating piece by Denis de Rougemont on the "invention of romantic love," which he dated to the 12th century. While I have become convinced that this pinpointing is mistaken, the article opened my eyes to the possibility of the history of ideas, an approach which (later guided by the incomparable Arthur Lovejoy) I have pursued ever since. However, Norman Cousins (the editor of SRL) tried to turn it into a liberal political rag. This approach has been adopted more successfully by The New York Review of Books (sic), but I still think that it is a mistake. A literary review should do the best it can--as a literary review. (I put "sic" in the sentence above, because the NY Review actually reviews very few books.)
Anyway a half century ago I moved from the sticks (as Southern Cal. then was), to the Apple--as it was and is: sometimes nourishing, sometimes rotten. We still are afflicted with a number of worms, one them being, I think, the refusal to accept that this country has a two-party system. Not that I retain any affection for the Republicans, but knee-jerkism has its limits. I remember that after the November election in 2004, the streets were deserted. People were stunned. To adapt Pauline Kael (only slightly): "How could Bush have won? No one I know voted for him."
Anyway, not long after I arrived in the Gotham in 1956, I noticed that there were two types of intellectuals. The first type were well dressed individuals living in comfortable pads on the Upper East Side, the silk-stocking district. Their elegant coffee-tables almost invariably displayed the latest issue of The New Yorker. The other type of intellectual sported The Village Voice on their coffee tables, which were probably recycled packing cases or old doors lying flat and set up on legs--so much more chic, you know. I never met anyone who would admit to reading both.
Despite its original antigay policy I gravitated to The Village Voice. With its early opposition to the Vietnam War and championing of all sorts of dissident groups, the VV was a bellweather of what was to come. In the late sixties it provided the template for the underground press, which flourished luxuriantly but briefly in the flower-power era. Like it or not, we experienced a cultural revolution in those days. The hippie silliness notwithstanding, we are all the better for the freedoms secured in those heady days. Today, of course, the Village Voice can be obtained gratis throughout the city. If I had a dog, I would pick it up as a pooper scooper, but I don't. Through stridency and raunchiness, it seeks to recapture its former relevance. Alas, that is gone forever, but this sad end does not detract from the paper's historic role.
The New Yorker was another matter. To be sure, it did publish a number of pioneering multipart articles. From the early sixties I remember particularly Hannah Arendt's articles on the Eichmann trial. These were the source of a continuing seminar among my friends.
Despite such services, The New Yorker remained firmly Establishment. In fact it defined a kind of smugness that the cultural revolution overthrew. Eventually, the New Yorker tried to reinvented itself under the disastrous Tina Brown. Now things are back to normal. I get it in the mail, but only because the subscription is so cheap. About half the articles I do not bother to read. In no way is The New Yorker cutting edge, a retardataire status proved by its dithering about the Iraq War, which the editor the "oh so savvy" wunderkind David Remnick initially supported. In addition to deja vue, it's the Best and the Brightest all over again.
I agree with the Gay Species that it is good to have a balance of liberal and conservative voices. However, I dropped The Weekly Standard several years ago (it was an interesting phenomenon when it started, but it has become descredited with the Bushbot crackup). I do read the New Criterion (where I once had an article) in my local Barnes and Noble branch. For nuanced conservative commentary the best source is Andrew Sullivan's blog, The Daily Dish, at the Time site. I read it every day. As far as the left goes, The Nation is looking better and better.
I've dropped most of my magazine subscriptions, finding it more convenient to get the material on line. Aldaily is an excellent source for many things. I would like to put in a plug for the Times Literary Supplement, which I have read faithfully for many years. I fear it is not long for this world, but it still reviews more books than any of its competitors.
Well, with the Internet the world is our oyster now. There is no need to restrict one self to such feeble stuff as the old Saturday Review, which is where I began. If some weekly fizzles out (as The New Republic did for me) there are an enormous number of substitutes.