June 2005

DeAnn Welker

magazine whore

The Death of Reading (Magazines)

“Is it me? I hope it's not me. No. No, it's not me, it's you.”

That is the internal conversation I have with nearly every magazine I pick up to "read." The reason, of course, is most magazines no longer seem to think I am looking for something to, you know, "read."

I don't know when U.S. magazine publishers decided that the public is more interested in short blurbs than in-depth writing that might teach readers something. But, with a few notable exceptions, it's happened. My fear is that it's too late to go back.

I can't really blame the magazine industry, though. It is, after all, just giving the majority of magazine readers what they want. Or need. It is giving them something they can skim but still call "reading"; something that takes almost zero brain power, but that most people will glean at least a nugget of trivial information from so they feel like they are learning. But they're not.

The biggest concern I have is that, as a nation, we seem to want to feign reading instead of doing it. We would rather read a 30-word blurb in The Week about the news that's happening in the world than the lengthy account of it in Newsweek or the analysis of it in The New Yorker. We would rather read a 50-word book review squeezed into People magazine than one in London Review of Books that might actually tell us something of substance about the book.

I should clarify: When I say "we," I do not mean everyone. I am not even including myself. Yes, I still subscribe to The Week (although I am close to canceling my subscription because I feel like I read it and end up knowing that something happened, but not what, why or how) and I love Entertainment Weekly even though it rarely has anything that goes longer than a page.

But what I yearn for is depth. Substance. I would give up all of the blurb-by-blurb "insight" of Entertainment Weekly (OK, maybe not all) for a little bit more. More length. More weight. More information.

There are magazines that contain the depth and substance I’m looking for -- The New Yorker, The Economist and the Atlantic, to name a few. And the readership of those magazines is reportedly on the rise.

But mass-market readers are not reading those publications. If they were, they would be in grocery store racks, where the most popular (best-selling) magazines make their homes. But what do you find there instead? Tabloids. Us Weekly. Cosmopolitan. And even new but somehow popular titles such as In Touch.

Some magazine "readers" might think: "But who cares? Why is depth important? I don't need to know the details of every situation. It's just good that I know that the situations occur." And if you feel that way, well, you've gotten your way.

In that happening, something got lost. It got lost in the muck of music videos and quite possibly TV in general. Television is a place where, for the most part, people can go to get short, fast blips of entertainment, broken up by "short films" (which commercials have become) of Paris Hilton eating a burger or a preview for the latest Star Wars movie. It is a place that doesn't have to require any real investment, unlike books or even many movies. (Before anyone gets defensive, I do realize that some television does require an investment; most, however, does not.)

Television alone, though, cannot take the blame for our collective lack of attention. Videogames have played their part. And, loath as I am to admit it, so has the Internet. All of these things can give people enough excitement -- or faux excitement, which passes for the real thing these days -- that there is no need to invest in something that might actually educate.

That, after all, is what this loss of depth and substance in magazines comes down to: a loss of education. When we let reading slip away from us -- even in the form of magazines that might matter -- we are losing a chance to gain knowledge. And that, in the end, is what we will miss.