A MODERN READER #7: Newspapers? Newspapers!


Last March, when the New York Times announced they would be erecting a pay wall, I knew I would pay it. I respect their journalism, specifically, and the role they pay in our democracy, generally. Then, I realized that with my student discount, it wasn’t that much more expensive for delivery of the paper. So I subscribed to the Weekender–Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. It arrives in the predictable blue plastic bag, thrown over my front fence, and I love it.

When I started this column, I lamented the deluge of text and reading in my daily life. This subscription of course brings with it hundreds of pages a week of additional stuff: news, interviews, essays, ideas. I brought that upon myself, but reading the Sunday paper with breakfast fills me with a petty bourgeois satisfaction that I have quickly come to value.

This is trite, but true: it enriches my life. A brief description in the Sunday Review a few weeks back, sent me to The Paris Review website to read the interview with Janet Malcolm. Though I’d read her reportage in the New Yorker, I wasn’t very familiar with her work. The piece about her interview opened up the world of this enigmatic journalist and her craft of the interview. Conducted via email with the precision of the written word, rather than the spoken, the lengthy interview reveals Malcolm’s perspective on non-fiction versus fiction, her attitude towards editors, and other insights. She says of being sued for libel, “It took me out of a sheltered place and threw me into bracingly icy water. What more could a writer want?”

Unlike the blogs I choose to visit or even the narrowly edited magazines to which I subscribe, the newspaper casts a wide net that leads me to other prey. I read the Business section now. Turns out, it’s not all about the Dow Jones. Okay, it’s mainly about the Dow Jones. Even when the articles don’t directly mention the stock market, their topic may influence the stock market: “HSBC to Cut 30,000 Jobs,” “Ticket Sales Start-Up Aims at Smaller Box Offices,” “Airline Alliance Puts Air India on Standby.” These are coded messages about how to manage your portfolio. I don’t have a portfolio, nor do I plan on having one.

This may come as a surprise to you, as it did to me: publishing is a business. So the business writers talk about it. Like a slap on the wrist, an article about self-publishing (in the Business Section) reminded me why I will continue my subscription. In “Options for Self-Publishing Proliferate,” Alina Tugend discussed how self-publishing works, what’s good about it, and what’s not. She clearly broke down how certain sites help authors (Lulu.com versus AuthorHouse), while cautioning about the trouble of marketing a self-published book. A couple of months back, Neal Pollack explained in the Book Review why he chose to self-publish, but he didn’t explain the logistics. I am beginning to see the B section as a necessary evil to round out the magazine, Arts and Leisure, and the Sunday Review.

Occasionally, I am annoyed: it seems, certain articles are there solely to prop up the myth of New York as the economic and cultural center of the universe. Don’t get me wrong–I believe that myth. It behooves the paper to perpetuate that myth, but I don’t really care about hipsters going to the beach or the newest frozen desserts in Brooklyn.

Of course, I still visit the Times online, and often when the paper arrives, I have already seen the cover story and the lead image. The paper lags behind its online corollary, but this odd dissonance actually makes the news more pertinent and interesting. I don’t know what your online reading habits are like, but I typically read a headline and then move on, as if the headline were all I needed: “Carmakers Back Strict New Rules for Gas Mileage,” “Two Generals Quit in Group, Stunning Turkey,” “Britain Debates Riots and Fears They Set a Pattern.” Or I read an article while doing other things. I read Warren Buffet’s op-ed piece about taxing billionaires while checking my e-mail, grabbing book cover images offline, and fruitlessly searching Craiglist for a dark, round rug. Last weekend when the paper arrived I saw a story about the economic protests in Israel, and I realized that just because I had already glimpsed the article online that did not somehow make the news not happen, disappearing behind the veil of yesterday. The protests happened twenty-four hours ago instead of two hours ago, but they still occurred and the reporting of them still matters. By playing with time, my newspaper subscription makes the rest of the world real again.

But how has the rest of my reading fared? Have I forsaken timeless books for ephemeral news? Certainly, a portion of my time is zapped by the morning paper, but in the past few months I’ve still found time for Orlando, Freedom, About a Mountain, among others. I also bought–though haven’t yet read–A Dance to the Music of Time, by Anthony Powell. Specifically, I bought the first two of nine volumes. Rick Moody’s interview with Nick Delany last December inspired my purchase. Delany has been reading A Dance to the Music of Time for the past ten years, over and over again; backwards, forwards, and in between. I, on the other hand, haven’t really started it. I have it now, which makes it easier to start reading, when I decide to.

As for next month, currently on my shelf sit Nom de Plume by Carmela Ciuraru (an pseudo-academic study on sixteen pseudonymous authors and their real lives), From the Observatory by Julio Cortázar (an odd short story by one of my favorite writers), and David Copperfield (a classic I embarrassingly missed). I’ll see how the reading does.


The illustration for A Modern Reader was created by Brianne Farley.

M. Rebekah Otto lives in Berkeley, CA. She grew up in Chicago. Her current interests include her new nine-to-five, vintage wallpaper, and Evan S. Connell. Also, she's the former Books Editor of the Rumpus. More from this author →