Life as a series of unread periodicals

May 4th, 2014 by Phil Leave a reply »

There are 4 periodicals larger than newsletter size which I read on a consistent basis:

Chicago Reader.  Publication frequency:  Weekly.  If you’re in Chicago, this needs no explanation.  If you’re not in Chicago, it probably still needs no explanation.  It’s the city’s main weekly paper.  I read most of it.  I don’t tend to read the theater reviews or things having to do with visual art or dance, and I don’t read Dan Savage’s column.  I tend to read pretty much everything else.

MAGNET.  Publication frequency:  Monthly.  This is a music magazine.  It published either quarterly or bimonthly from the mid-late 90s until about 2009 or 2010.  Then it stopped.  Then, inexplicably, it returned a couple of years ago, and suddenly publishing monthly.  It is basically an indie-rock magazine.  There are short articles on about a dozen bands each month, a mid-sized feature, a long feature, a couple of regular columns, and a boatload of album reviews.  I read it almost word for word.

Preservation.  Publication frequency:  Bimonthly.  This is the official publication of The National Trust for Historic Preservation.  Ostensibly the writing is mostly about American historical treasures which have been saved or which are in danger of being demolished.  It’s very well done.  A large chunk is devoted to place-specific advertising; I don’t read that.  I read everything else.

Journal of Illinois History.  Publication frequency:  Quarterly.  A typical volume of JIH has 3 pieces about 25-30 pages long and then about 8-10 book reviews.  At least 2 of the book reviews are always for books about Lincoln.  This is the last vestige of scholarly interaction I have with my once-chosen field.  I read everything.

At any given point in time, I can assess “how far behind” I am relative to “the world” or “whatever” by counting the stack of unread periodicals.  Now, since the Reader is weekly, it’s a bit preposterous to declare the current week unread as of 7:00 on a Wednesday night.  But if I get to the weekend – yeah, then it’s unread.

Right this very minute, I have no backlog of unread periodicals.  It is liberating!

This is a stupid way to approach existence, of course.

Here is the thing:  I simply have a hard time reading books anymore.  Five years ago, I kept track, and I read something like 50-60 books that year.  Four years ago I was at maybe 40.  Last year I maybe read 4?

There are a lot of factors that play into this.  I used to read primarily on the train, and I used to have a longer overall train ride.  I spend a lot more of that train time jacking around on my phone.  And the periodicals always seem to get in the way of books.

But the main thing is that I can’t just sit down and absorb a book.  My attention span is shot.  The phone is definitely part of that, but the phone is symptomatic at least as much as it could be considered causal.

I especially can’t read at home.  I used to read before bed.  I can’t do that anymore.  I can mess around on the computer for a long time but it’s incredibly difficult to stay focused on a book for a long time.  If it’s a book of essays or short stories – especially if it’s sort of light, something like David Sedaris or Chuck Klosterman – then it’s all potentially a little easier.  But I still just can’t seem to sit down and read.

In my mind, it would even be hard to go to a movie anymore.  That would require sitting there for 2 hours.  That’s not how we watch movies at home.  Hell, we don’t even watch movies at home!  It’s too involved most of the time.  We watch TV on DVD or Roku but those are all like 45 minute episodes.  We’ll watch a documentary, but most documentaries are in the 60-75 minute realm, and even then, we’ll probably get up at least 2-3 times each.  And we were doing that before there was a baby involved in the process.

And so in the context of all this, the periodicals take on a weird, strangely heightened importance.  They become actual tasks.  Sometimes I really have to buckle down and focus to finish an issue of MAGNET.  It’s not that I don’t like what I’m reading – it’s just that even the feature-length articles can sometimes seem too involved to sit down and read at once.  They’re like 6 pages!

I have seriously been thinking about the idea of hauling this tiny family off to some place for 4-5 days of reading and not much else.

Part of the problem, and this is a long-standing problem, is that if I do read something, there’s no followup, nobody to talk to about it.  I’ll read a Nelson Algren novel, and it’ll be amazing, and there’s so much in it to talk about, and it’s all about Chicago, and I’m, you know, in Chicago, and there are thousands of people somewhere around me who have read Algren and have things to say about it, and I know like 1 of those people and I don’t know that guy well at all and how can this possibly make any sense?  A few years ago I blitzed through 3 of Fitzgerald’s novels back to back and somehow had nobody to talk to it about any of them.  This isn’t some random schmuck writing some weird YA fiction that might vaguely involve wicca.  This is F. Scott Fucking Fitzgerald, and I can’t actually talk to anyone about this?

We’re a very fragmented culture.  I don’t mean that entirely in a bad way.  I think it’s fascinating and interesting that everybody seems to be interested in very different music or books.  Now, yeah, it seems like everyone is interested in the same television shows.  But there’s really a rich diversity of thought and taste when it comes to so many things and I think in a lot of ways this makes for a stronger society and it is indicative of how much better a world this is than it was for my parents.  And yet, there is something really bizarre about feeling culturally isolated when I’m reading books straight out of the decades-old established canon.

The culprit, and the savior, is the Internet.  The Internet has been this amazing engine of allowing people to pursue their own tastes.  It brings ideas together in unquantifiable ways.  But it also boils so many of those ideas out to tiny nuggets, often hyper-disposable.  People become united in weird ways, pushing into greater abstraction.  It’s like a Big Bang of Culture – the universe keeps expanding and things are flying all over the place and it’s all terribly exciting but it’s so chaotic.  In the midst of the chaos we seem to be able to be transfixed by things like major sports and political stories but there’s precious little depth there.  The Internet holds us together, but in the loosest possible way.  We’re so fractured now that if not for Facebook we’d be lost.

And so the impending arrival of another issue of MAGNET provides cohesion and regularity.  The two primary touchstones of the week are Monday morning when we go back to work, and Thursday morning (or Wednesday evening if lucky) when the Reader magically appears.

The rumours of print being dead?  Don’t believe the hype.  Someone, somewhere, is going to keep printing something on a periodic basis, and it’s going to provide an important serving of mental fiber for our bizarrely constipated existence.  They – in some form – will never stop arriving, and so life will truck along, perpetually a series of unread periodicals.

Now, if I could just find somebody to talk about that article from JIH about horror movies being broadcast on Quad Cities television in the late ’70s, I’d be all set.

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