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!