Seven years before I turned seventeen, I was a devoted subscriber of Seventeen magazine. Every month, I cracked open the latest issue and spread it out on the kitchen table. I held it up to my nose on the couch, inhaling the perfume samples, and read it before I fell asleep at night. Most of the publication’s advice was far too mature for my pre-teen brain, and absolutely inapplicable to a life set in the woods of New Hampshire. I wore a uniform to school and never learned how to properly apply makeup. But the magazine offered the same escape as a novel or a child’s picture book.
When we traveled, my mother compiled analog entertainment and snacks to keep my brothers and I occupied. I hated flying, but I loved new magazines. If you saw me now in an airport, you would literally watch me sail into a Hudson News like a woman possessed.
In Portland, Oregon, I worked for a locally-owned shop that sold two things: magazines and tobacco. I’m not a smoker, but I am magazine addict. They said there were over 2800 titles on the shelves, and each week I’d unpack new issues and switch out the old ones. When the owner barked at me for reading on the job, I argued that I couldn’t recommend magazines if I hadn’t actually read them. (Although I could recommend cigars that I had never smoked, so my reasoning ran thin.)
Despite my love for them, in my adult life I had only ever subscribed to smarty pants magazines like The New Yorker and Bookforum, which were subsequently left on the coffee table, unopened and unread.
When I moved to Wisconsin in 2016, I suffered from withdrawals. Grocery stores carried your standard tabloid mags, but there was only one place with a decent selection: Books-a-Million (before I co-founded Dotters Books in 2017, BAM was the town’s only dedicated bookstore for new books). I visited regularly to buy my new favorite, Harper’s Bazaar UK. But one day it disappeared from the shelves.
When I asked a sales associate if she could help me find the latest issue of Harper’s Bazaar UK, she said she had never heard of it.
For weeks I went back and pestered the store’s employees. Apparently no one had heard of it. I shrieked, But you used to have it! I bought it here before!
They shrugged and said someone at the corporate office decided which magazines they received.
I fumed in the parking lot, How inconsistent! How have you not heard of a magazine that’s been around since 1867! 1867!!!
I realize now how silly it was, especially when I realized that Harper’s Bazaar UK sells this thing called a “subscription,” where they ship the magazine right to your door every month. And the United Kingdom has this thing we also have in the USA called the “internet,” where you can go onto a website and place an order for a thing they have that you want.
I ordered a subscription and stocked up on back issues to tide me over for the winter, as if I intuited February’s record snowstorms. And it wasn’t until I read an issue that I realized what I’d been missing.
When I was ten I didn’t have an e-mail address. We had just gotten dial-up internet at our house. Magazines were a way of seeing the world and the people in it (naturally, National Geographic was also a favorite of mine).
Now, I can scroll through Pinterest or Instagram for hours each day. And sometimes I do. It’s literally endless. I can scroll and scroll and scroll and scroll and scroll and scroll and never ever EVER reach the end of this infinite abyss of images, of user-generated content. With so much at my fingertips, I didn’t think I needed magazines. And there are advantages to the internet that magazines lack. With user-generated content, we arguably see more diverse voices and bodies than we see in magazines, which are beholden to advertisers and confined by that revenue. Some publications are worse than others — airbrushing and photoshopping models, furthering unrealistic societal expectations of women (which is rampant online as well, and furthered in other manners).
And yet. When I receive a British Harper’s in the mail I brew myself a cup of loose leaf tea, put my phone away, and read. It smells like paper, ink, and perfume. The pages make a sound when you turn them, as opposed to the silent swipe of a thumb. Each issue begins with advertisements for luxury items and couture brands I may never afford, and lately each letter to the editor makes some reference, oblique or otherwise, to Brexit. There are short excerpts on art exhibits and cultural events happening in the UK. But for such a small island nation, there’s a wide reach: an insider’s guide to Tel Aviv, an interview with Rose McGowan discussing institutional sexism, an article on the paintings of Vanessa Bell (Virginia Woolf’s sister). It’s a refreshing reminder that there’s a whole world outside the confines of the vast United States.
When you read a magazine, you know they’re trying to sell you something. They’re not shy about it. They’re not writing captions with disclaimers like, “my opinion is in no way influenced by this collaboration, and I hope you know by now that I would never sugarcoat how I feel” (which is an actual quote from an actual sponsored post on Instagram).
Magazines clearly delineate what is an advertisement and what is not. Sponsored content is defined as such. You don’t reach the end of an article or personal essay to find the words #ad #sponsored #partner or #affiliate. Journalists have a code of conduct and ethical guidelines, which usually includes not accepting free items (though some publications allow this).
There aren’t any links to click in the middle of an article. There’s no sidebar with distracting information like “this week on Instagram, celebrities wore prints.” There’s no pop-up asking if you want “30 must-have pieces for every wardrobe” delivered to your inbox.
But my favorite thing about a magazine is that each issue has an end. I get the same inspiration without the groggy digital hangover.
The publication seems to understand that we live in a moment where our attention (and our politics) are divided, if not outright divisive. It’s aware that by the time an issue reaches our doorsteps, it’s outdated. In 1867, you received a magazine and learned of world events for the first time. Headlines are delivered in real-time now, streamed from cell phones and live-tweeted. An editor of a print magazine has the unique and somewhat strange job of deciding what hits the sweet spot between evergreen content and of-the-moment messaging.
It’s a Sisyphean task, if you think about it. Almost as futile as trying to reach the end of a social media feed.
But I like people who know what they’re up against, and create beautiful and intellectually engaging pieces anyway.
A version of ‘In Praise of Print’ originally appeared in the cedeling newsletter.