This morning while channeling my inner klutz, I spilled a full cup of coffee right next to my chair, with the splash zone covering the end table, the rug, and a stack of books and magazines. Dryness was soon restored, and most of the mags were old Sports Illustrateds I’d been planning to get rid of anyway. But the casualties also included my last remaining paper copies of the New Yorker. And this touched the heartstrings a bit, because such copies have been in my home or my parents’ home for about 75 years.
My folks subscribed soon after they married in 1939. Though founder Harold Ross famously said The New Yorker wasn’t written for “the little old lady in Dubuque,” it was just fine for a young couple in Springfield, Illinois, not that far away. My mother saved some of the covers, like this one from 1942, for years afterward, and the magazine was always around the house when I was growing up. I remember reading parts of “In Cold Blood” when the New Yorker carried a serialized version in the 60s. I also picked up my dad’s love of New Yorker legends like A. J. Liebling and James Thurber, who I wrote about in a 10th-grade English paper (and got an A).
My mother later gave me a gift subscription that she renewed every Christmas (along with other ritual, much-loved presents like socks and chocolate). I stuck with it through the erratic years just before Tina Brown took over, when one week there’d be some interesting, well-written pieces and the next there’d be a 90-page treatise on goat cheese, Balinese wood carvings, or something equally esoteric.
Last year I finally switched to a digital, Kindle subscription, which does have its advantages. They include timely delivery every Monday morning, which the Post Office could never manage, and of course the end to a paper backlog. No more back issues like the ones I spilled coffee on, maybe a couple years’ worth, scattered around various rooms. No more having to scan every one before deciding whether to toss it or keep it in hopes of one day reading that one interesting piece I hadn’t gotten to yet.
Do I sound like I’m trying to convince myself this change is a good thing?
I know all the great writing is still out there. In fact, the magazine has an online archive of every issue going back to the first one in 1925. I can look up the one from ’42 with the Hitler cover anytime. But a small part of everyday life that seemed permanent, forever, is still gone.
Billy Bragg, one of my musical heroes, hit on something similar when he wrote “The Tears of My Tracks” about selling his vinyl albums: “I opened the window / I let in the sun / My record collection has ended / For someone else’s just begun. I’m down, but I’m not out / Lord I’m hurting / I’m down, but I’m not out / But I feel blue.”