The Best American Magazine Writing: 2009

I’ve long believed that a really good writer can make any topic interesting. That’s especially clear in the world of magazine writing. I mean, let’s face it, a reader is unlikely to even attempt to read a whole book on a topic of no interest, but an article, perhaps. Given the chance, I’ll read a magazine article on just about anything, as long as the writing engages me.

The thing is, though, I hardly ever read magazines anymore. I used to be a regular magazine subscriber, getting two or three in the mail. Admittedly, the magazines I received were not known for their superb writing; most were either news magazines like Time or magazines devoted to some particular interest of the moment (Fitness or Sojourners). Still, I do love good magazine writing, so I was happy to pick up a copy of this collection of award-winning articles at the ALA conference last year. I took it with me on my recent trip to see Jenny so that I would have something to read on the plane when my e-reader had to be turned off or if I found myself unable to focus on a long novel in a noisy airport.

The articles in this collection come a variety of magazines, from The New Yorker and Esquire to Sports Illustrated and Automobile. The topics are extremely wide-ranging. There’s James Woods’s review of Marilynne Robinson’s Home. There’s David Lipsky’s Rolling Stone profile of David Foster Wallace. For Esquire, Tom Chiarella writes about his short gig working in a butcher shop; and for GQ, Sean Flynn writes about the competing claims for a piece of James Brown’s estate.  All of the articles were finalists or winners in the American Society of Magazine Editors’ 2009 National Magazine Awards.

I found all of the articles interesting to some degree, which confirms my belief that good magazine writing brings life to any topic. It probably helps, too, that I’m generally a curious person who likes to know at least a little bit about a lot of things. So rather than write about every single one of them, I’ll mention a few that really stood out.

Two articles in particular struck me as particularly thoughtful pieces on subjects that I see discussed frequently, but without a lot of nuance. Sandra Tsing Loh’s Atlantic article “I Choose My Choice!” takes a fresh and funny look at the debate about whether it’s better for moms to stay at home or go out to work. The article is actually a response to Linda Hirshman’s Get to Work … And Get a Life, Before It’s Too Late and Neil Gilbert’s A Mother’s Work: How Feminism, the Market and Policy Shape Family Life. Loh’s article critiques both books and brings to the table a big dose of honesty about the work most women are now free to choose to do. It’s not a choice between heaps of dirty diapers and martini lunches, that’s for sure.

Hannah Rosin’s Atlantic article “A Boy’s Life” raises some difficult questions about how parents should deal with raising children who believe they are the wrong gender. What intrigued me about this article was how Rosin weaved in concerns about the way we define gender as well as challenges of determining whether a boy’s fascination with princesses and dresses is a passing phase or a sign that he is indeed transgender. It’s an incredibly fair and compassionate piece.

A particularly moving article is Chris Jones’s “The Things That Carried Him,” the story of the final journey of Sgt. Joe Montgomery’s body, published in Esquire. Told backwards, beginning with the funeral and ending with Sgt. Montgomery’s death in Iraq, the story is filled with details that make every moment important.

Although I’m no backpacker, I was fully immersed in Tracy Ross’s Backpacker essay, “The Source of All Things.” The backpacking is almost incidental in this story of Ross’s backpacking trip with the step-father who sexually abused her as a child.

Honestly, I could go on and on. There were really only two pieces that disappointed me—“Making It” by Ryan Lizza for The New Yorker and “Vickie’s Pour House” by Maureen McCoy for The Antioch Review. And it wasn’t that these pieces were bad; they just didn’t quite engage me as much as the rest of the collection.

I did find, reading this, that I miss my magazine reading. Although many great articles like these are available online, I don’t make a point of visiting magazine websites regularly. Besides, many of these articles are too long to read well on the web. And a single magazine that is unlikely to offer quite the wonderful variety in a collection like this. I’m curious. Do any of you subscribe to particularly well-written magazines that cover an interesting array of topics? I’d love to know about them!

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8 Responses to The Best American Magazine Writing: 2009

  1. This sounds great, Teresa. I think I’m more likely to read a collection like this than a magazine. I used to love reading magazines, but now I notice that when I do buy magazines, I usually end up letting them stack up unread. Maybe it’s wading through all those pages of ads for things I can’t afford. The only magazine I subscribe to and read regularly is Poets and Writers magazine–which I love.

    • Teresa says:

      I fear that if I subscribed to a magazine again, the issues would just pile up. I have a copy of the Atlantic that I just randomly picked up a month ago, and it’s been sitting around my house, hardly read. Maybe collections like this are the way to go for me.

  2. Deb says:

    There was a time when I subscribed to a number of magazines–mostly general interesting/news magazines, like Time. I did have subscriptions to The New Yorker, Vogue (and I’m absolutely no fashionista), and Vanity Fair. But times (and budgets) have changed and now I only have one subscription: Entertainment Weekly. (Hangs head in shame.)

    I still look at a number of magazines on-line. However, one thing I notice about on-line magazines is that I rarely read the loooooong articles that were standard for me to read on paper; the long articles really have to catch and hold my interest for me to finish them. Recently, I did read a 26-page on-line Vanity Fair (?) article about Scientology. It would have been nothing for me to read an article that long in hardcopy, but it stood out to me because I continued reading it on-line until the end. I wonder if that is because our minds go into a different frame when we’re reading on-line and we’re looking for a quick hit rather than a long journey.

    • Teresa says:

      No need to hang your head! I’ve been tempted to subscribe to EW more than once.

      I have the same experience with you with the really long articles. If an article gets over, say 2,000 words, I rarely read the whole thing. I think the web encourages skimming in a way print, or even e-readers, does not.

  3. Chelsea says:

    This sounds like a wonderful read, especially as pieces to fill in the gaps between larger readings! I miss being at my parents house, where magazines are always in abundance (the subscribe to Time, Newsweek, Entertainment Weekly and Rolling Stone) but since I move so much as a college student, I’ve yet to set up my own subscriptions. The only consolation is that now when I go home, I get quite the stack of back issues to pour through at my leisure! Everything you discussed here sounds particularly thrilling, but I have to say I’m not surprised – the Best Of books generally do a good job pulling together good collections. Great review!

    • Teresa says:

      Heh, I also tend to read through my parents’ magazines when I go home, although they’ve cut back on subscriptions, so there haven’t been big piles of them. And when I don’t pay for the subscription, I don’t feel obligated to read the whole thing.

  4. Dorothy W. says:

    The New Yorker is my favorite, and Harper’s has good essays frequently. This collection sounds similar to the Best American Essays series, which I love — and which draws from many of the publications you mention in your post. In fact, now I’m curious how this book distinguishes itself from the essay collection. I love it when a writer makes me interested in a topic I never thought I want to read about.

    • Teresa says:

      I sometimes pick up the New Yorker when I see it in waiting rooms, but there never seems to be enough that I’m interested in a single issue for me to get a subscription. But they do get some great writers.

      This is similar to the Best American Essays, which I read several years in a row and then forgot about. I’m guessing that this is different in that it’s winners of a specific contest. I wonder if there’s overlapping content.

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