Why I can't let go of my magazine subscriptions

Yes, it's a nuisance when the stacks of yet-to-be-read magazines reach frightening altitudes. But sooner or later comes the day when I actually do read them.

Danny Heitman
There is a large wicker basket by the couch quite big enough to contain any reasonable reading ambition. Magazines have started spilling over the rim of the basket, like a river flooding its banks.

As another spring cleaning season arrives, many readers face a common dilemma. How do you tame the family magazine rack that’s swelled the past few months, filled with more stuff than anyone can possibly get around to?

I write this from the front lines of the periodical wars – my living room, where I can see that during the winter, various journals have piled up near the sofa as solemnly as a snowdrift, showing no signs of disappearing even though the yard has greened, and blooms have returned to our Japanese magnolia.

There is a large wicker basket by the couch quite big enough to contain any reasonable reading ambition, but reading, properly embraced, is a passion, not a reasonable affair. Magazines have started spilling over the rim of the basket, like a river flooding its banks. I just fetched a tape measure from the cabinet and gauged the altitude of the pile. I’m ashamed to say that it’s more than two feet tall. If any of those hoarding shows get wind of this, I could be the next cable television star.

What accounts for keeping so many magazines at hand? Professional circumstances, for one thing, figure into my fetish. I’m a fairly regular contributor to three magazines, write occasionally for several others, and am vain enough to enjoy seeing my name in print. Some magazines hang around our house as a small reminder of work I’ve done, and I occasionally revisit them in the same way that a carpenter might look once again at a table he’s built, a beam he’s squared with the wall. You see evidence of a job done well and – this is the useful but chastening thing – evidence of what could have been better.

I love writing for magazines for the same reason I like reading them. I like how they are called “slicks” because of their waxy covers, suggesting the smoothness of an idea polished to a bright luster. I like their ambition, how they take the time and space to chase down an argument or issue, inviting you along for the pursuit. I like their old-fashioned assumption of a reader patient enough to place a magazine on his lap and keep it there for an evening, like a favorite cat.

Magazines suggest a wide expanse of time in which to read them – a prospect, as any reader learns, that is often an illusion. While we’re out answering the hundred other urgencies of life – the job, the dental appointment, the soccer game – the magazines pile up, threatening to compost in the shadow of our neglect.

The digital revolution has played its part in the mound of magazines around my house, too. As the Twittersphere, blogosphere, and Facebook nudge us perpetually forward, begging our attention to the Next Big Thing, who has time to revisit an issue of National Geographic from last November?

Digital technology suggests a solution to magazine clutter as well. Why not just read everything online, with those unread magazines stored invisibly in the ether of cyberspace, comfortably out of sight and out of mind?

I rather like the idea, since I already enjoy a lot of smart periodical journalism on my laptop and smart phone. But physical magazines continue to appeal to me – not only as containers of information, but works of art.

So I will start culling our magazine rack down to a manageable size – to something, in other words, that won’t cause a landslide when our terrier passes the stack. In doing so, I will also pause for a while and do what the magazines have asked me to do since last spring: Open their pages, and read.

Danny Heitman, a columnist for The Advocate newspaper in Louisiana, is also an essayist for Phi Kappa Phi Forum.

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