Damn you, Harper’s

About eight years ago, I read my first copy of Harper’s. Up until then, I’d never been a magazine person (not counting the subscription I had, at the age of 16, to Psychology Today…and then later, Spy for a brief period, while they were struggling with bankruptcy). Okay. Let’s just say that, from my twenties onward, I wasn’t a magazine person. But one day I picked up Harper’s and I fell in love. I discovered something densely intelligent, funny, and with such a variety of content that one could spend countless hours reading (nay appreciating, savouring) every morsel it served. Lastly, for someone who was much more interested at the time in non-fiction, it was a godsend.

Then, after 9/11/01 [sidenote: it took a tragedy for people to officially confuse the order of the month and day when writing the date], I fell out of love. Not immediately, mind you – if anything, out-of-the-gate, Harper’s was one of the few mainstream voices of sanity in the aftermath. While everyone in the mass media seemed to conform to a dangerously singular mindset (i.e. being complacent), Harper’s was honestly critical and asked the necessary questions. But, over time, I found then-editor Lewis Lapham’s essays too predictably left-wing (and I think the fact that they were predictable was perhaps the greater sin). The magazine also began to suffer from the same Americentric cocooning as the rest – I believe the turning point for me was an essay on how pragmatism was a uniquely American concept. Oh, really.

I felt like I was reading something written by people who had never left their homes, or who didn’t want their presumptions challenged. In other words, for reasons arguable or not in hindsight, it became a magazine like any other.

Flash-forward to 2008: with the hell-job in its trailing throes, I found myself in a bookstore itching for something different to peruse – something less weighty (literally) than a book. And sure enough, as if face-t0-face with an ex-girlfriend, I was staring at a copy of Harper’s on a magazine rack. I picked it up, flipped through, and seeing a lack of blatant political indignation, sighed, and proceeded to the cash register.

Sure enough, I found myself addicted once again. The Readings section, with its immaculately edited selection of essays, fiction, poetry, and miscellaneous news items. The ubiquitous Harper’s Index. A fascinating piece on the possibility of transmissible cancer, by David Quammen. A report on the raw-milk controversy (with a Canadian angle, no less). Last but not least, a series of 22 short fiction pieces by Paul Theroux – each of them excellent.

While I am delighted at what seems to be the return of a full-blooded Harper’s, I’m equally despondent: it’s almost too much of a good thing. I can’t pick it up without devoting hours to reading every bit of it. As a result, I worry that everything else I’m reading (or promising to read – hello, Ulysses) will fall by the wayside.

Damn you, Harper’s. Damn you.


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