Wednesday, August 10, 2016

I Used To Read Magazines: Intellectual Atrophy In The Era of Social Media

Magazine pile in the den. Funny Times: The best bathroom magazine ever. 
Mojo: Perhaps the best music magazine ever. Perhaps.
I used to read magazines. A lot.

But that was before my iPhone–before it put blooper videos, friends’ vacation photos, snarky memes and angry political rants in my pocket. Before clients could text me at 10:00 at night or 7:00 in the morning, before NPR and ABC pushed news headlines onto my screen, before I could watch an approaching storm in near real time as I lay on my back in bed, the tiny screen and the morphing multi-colored weather system glowing before me.

Yeah, I used to sit on the porch and watch the storms, too.

I used to read long-form pieces on land planning, history, government policy, Hollywood trends and musician interviews. The magazines were stacked on the coffee table, kitchen table and toilet tank. I’m still drawn to the same material, but sound bites work better on that little backlit screen. And when I try to read New York Times article on my phone there are pop-ups screaming at me to click or buy or sign up for a monthly service.

It was so easy with magazines. The come-ons were printed on 3" x 5” inserts you just tore out and tossed aside.

In previous decades there were newspapers in the house, too. They laid open on Sunday mornings with jottings on the crossword puzzle, coffee cup rings across the masthead, torn-out coupons for $1 off State Fair admission, and jelly smeared across the president’s face, sometimes on purpose.

Yeah, I used to read newspapers.

The magazines were once thick – Rolling Stone, Time, Newsweek, Old House Journal. Like modern newspapers, they’re half or a third the thickness they once were. Nowadays only National Geographic offers as much content as before. That trustworthy bulwark is as good as ever. Old issues gathered in a willow branch magazine rack with dog-eared pages of recipes, gardening advice, and titles like 50 Ways To Occupy A Child On Summer Afternoons.
Magazine pile in the kitchen.
And there were novels stacked by the bed, on living room end tables, and laid open face down on lawn chairs. I used to travel to exotic, historic, and comic places with Earnest Hemingway, William Shirer and Tom Robbins. But the books are mostly lined up now, moldering away on shelves. These days I click on images of exotic places with headings like, “Wouldn’t You Love To Spend The Night Here?” or “The World’s 10 Most Breathtaking Vacation Destinations.” I do still read books, but fewer. I’ve even read some on my phone while riding an exercise bike at the gym: Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe and the last two in the Girl With The Dragon Tattoo series. But reading a book on that little screen is miserable.

Yeah, I used to read lots of real books back then. It seems like a long time ago. Magazine, newspapers, novels and people were all deeper back then.

This summer I’ve taken to buying Rolling Stone and Time magazine and the New Yorker again, putting them in the same kind of places where I read them before. And I’ve made a conscious effort to waste less time on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, that aimless staring and scrolling that gobbles up 3, 5, 10 minutes at a time until I’ve pissed away an hour each and every day (that adds up to over nine 40-hour work weeks in a year).

This summer, I’ve pulled out the magazines and read. But that muscle called “the brain” is out of shape. I’m halfway through a 2,000 word essay on racial strife in America and find myself wishing the author would just get to the quick, satisfying takeaway I can claim as knowledge.

When you’ve been consuming so much brain candy, brain nutrition is a little hard to chew.

The bathroom magazine rack in the Meyer house.
I used to buy magazines I thought would spark my kid’s imaginations. I’d leave them within easy reach. When I found one folded open on the floor beside their bed– an article about deforestation or Led Zeppelin, I figured, “score one for Dad.” Funny, I forcibly raised them without televisions or computers in their bedrooms, trying to keep the brain candy from rotting their gray matter, but it’s me who spends his entire workday staring into a computer screen with a cell phone at the ready.

And the kids seem to have it all better balanced. I don’t think my 20-something, adult kids spend as much time on social media as I do. They get on, take a look, and get off. One of them even turns off his Facebook account from time to time, just to get more in tune with the real world around him. Yet, when I’ve been with them recently on the streets of Denver or Tokyo and we need travel, weather or restaurant information, they pop out their phones and find it way faster than I can.

So here’s to seeking balance. Wish me luck. Think I’ll order a magazine subscription for each of my kids, and myself, too.

“Kurt Meyer’s The Salvage Man is a gentle Midwestern fantasy made up of one treasure after another. Part historical fiction, part love story, and part rumination on modern day life, this novel asks hard questions about the world we live in and the world we leave behind. I couldn’t put it down.”
Larry D. Sweazy, author of See Also Murder

“Meyer turns the pages of history with gentle care and a warm heart, creating a story I’ll remember forever. Thank you Kurt Meyer for opening a door to my beloved town’s past and allowing me to travel the streets and meet the people of Noblesville 1893.”
Susan Crandall, Author of Whistling Past the Graveyard