Saturday, February 26, 2005

Mind Candy

I ran into a friend at the health club today. I had just worked out on the elliptical machine and was carrying my reading material: Malcolm Gladwell’s new book, Blink, and the latest issue of People Magazine.

“How come you never talk about People Magazine on your blog?” she asked me.

I can’t get that question out of my head. The simple answer, of course, is that if I admit I read People Magazine, I’m admitting that I am not well read or intellectually curious. A magazine like People, or In Style, or Real Simple, suggests a lack of seriousness. When I carry around a New Yorker, or Harper’s, or the New York Times Magazine, in contrast, I look smart.

But I love People Magazine. I even occasionally write for it. And I consider myself literate and somewhat intellectual.

I think there is room to read books and magazines that are mindless because they give us mental room later on to read works that are challenging. I look forward to Fridays when People arrives in my mailbox. I usually devour it in 30 minutes. That is a half-hour of candy, the super sweet, low quality kind, the kind that leaves you sort of sick, but in a good way. And after I’m done with my snack, I reach for my nutritious food, the stuff that gives my body sustenance, like Blink.

The United States has many different cultures and the low brow and highbrow words don’t often seem to talk to one another. But I think it’s a valuable skill to be able to travel back and forth between those worlds, to understand what the intellectuals in the New York-Washington axis are thinking about as well as those who prefer glossy celebrity centered news. (A little secret: People Magazine, Entertainment Weekly and now even the Star are edited in New York by very smart, intellectually gifted people who are a lot like those who put out the Atlantic.) I like that I can talk about Jane Mayer’s recent New Yorker article about the torture system established by George W. Bush and the recent adorable pictures of Julia, Finn and Hazel that adorned a recent cover of People.

But like all cheap candy, glossy magazines get tiresome after a while. I just let my subscription to Real Simple lapse, in part because I was overdosing on mindlessness. But I’m not giving up my People magazine. It fits neatly in the stack next to my bed, right on top of Shirley Hazard’s Great Fire.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This point is probably obvious to you, but the sophistication of writing for several mainstream mags like Time and People transcends the subject matter (usually mundane and topical).

Several years ago I used to give seminars about vocabulary and the importance of reading. I had annotated an issue of People magazine with a list of "highfalutin" vocabulary words that more than half the population (according to our statistics) wouldn't know the meaning of.

People magazine had over a 100. Time and Cosmo had over 200. Editorially speaking People focuses on human interest stories and specifically celebrity human interest stories, topics likely to attract all kinds of readers.

When I taught English as a foreign language, my students generally found People and Time hard to read and Economist much easier to read (even though the Economist is seen as being more highbrow). People and Time also employed lots of idioms and pop references indecipherable to my Albanian students, while Economist scrupulously avoided language likely to befuddle a nonnative speaker.

That said, my students were far more likely to pick up a People magazine than an Economist....
Robert Nagle, idiotprogrammer