A book of magazine articles implies certain contradictions. Magazines are read and then, a few weeks or months later, recycled or passed on, while books linger, asserting their worthiness to be reread. The anthology Best American Magazine Writing 2007, consisting of winners and finalists from the American Society of Magazine Editors’ annual awards and published in conjunction with the Columbia School of Journalism, takes on that very contradiction. In the introduction, ASME president Cynthia Leive claims that these articles “are just as rich and rewarding on the second or third reading as they were . . . on the first.” And she’s right; except for one misstep, they succeed. From mountain climbing to Mozart, Agent Orange to Scientology, these articles almost unanimously engage.
The exception is Vanessa Grigoriadis’s profile of fashion designer Karl Lagerfield, which is also unfortunately the first piece in the book. Though it is cleverly written, it really does seem to be, well, all style.
Is this criticism fair? Does everything need to mean something? Whether serious or lighthearted, if an essay or article is going to endure it must do more than just portray something. It must ask, directly or indirectly, some questions, and the very best articles use one very specific topic as a prism to separate out larger issues. For example, William Langewiesche’s “Rules of Engagement” discusses an instance of possible war crimes committed in Iraq, but resonates beyond the current conflict by making readers consider where exactly the responsibility for a soldier’s choices lies. Conversely, Caroline Alexander’s profile of mountaineer Reinhold Messner in “Murdering the Impossible” succeeds where Grigoriadis fails, moving beyond Messner’s admittedly fascinating subject to investigate a human need to exceed limitations.
Read together as an anthology, certain themes emerge. For example, Tom Junod’s “The Loved Ones” and Andrew Corsello’s “The Other Side of Hate,” which both address guilt, innocence, and forgiveness, are strengthened by their juxtaposition. Junod’s article, an unsettling analysis of criminal charges brought against two New Orleans nursing home owners whose unevacuated patients died in Hurricane Katrina, examines the country’s need to blame someone for the Katrina tragedy. Meanwhile, Corsello’s piece looks at the friendship between a hotheaded young black priest in Zimbabwe and an older white farmer whose land has been taken, sensitively detailing their efforts to transform themselves and empathize with other victims of their country’s ongoing tragedies. In some ways it is the other half of Junod’s analysis, offering the difficult but ultimately achievable possibility of moving past blame to forgiveness.
Equally gripping is “The School,” C.J Chivers’ lengthy, nearly hour-by-hour recreation of the three-day siege of a Russian school by Chechan rebels. Though the writing is terse and less obviously crafted than the other pieces, Chivers allows the voices of dozens of hostages to come through. Sheer horror results. “Prairie Fire,” about the unexplained suicide of an adored Nebraska adolescent prodigy, is a very different read, but again, Konigsberg allows the voices and opinions of his interview subjects (the boy’s parents, psychologist, sister, friends, and ex-piano teachers, among others) to come through. By the end of the article, many of their arguments have unraveled, forcing the reader to question what exactly intelligence is and how to measure it.
While many of the best entries are reportage or features addressing deadly serious topics, Sandra Tsing Loh’s “Rhymes with Rich” shows that it doesn’t have to be that way. Her nastily hilarious column skewers wealthy, self-obsessed mothers and could serve as a case-study of our so-called postfeminist era. Other standouts include Susan Casey’s environmental wake-up call, “Our Oceans are Turning into Plastic . . . Are We?,” Michael Donohue’s essay “Russell and Mary,” about the writer’s attempts to recreate a life from the papers he found in the home of his deceased landlady, and Janet Reitman’s “Inside Scientology” with its wrenching interviews from young people trying to escape from the cult.
According to the Magazine Publishers of America’s statistics, the average magazine reader spends only 44 minutes per issue, whereas books take days or weeks. Magazines can be read out of order, books usually are not. You can skip a lot of articles in a magazine and still feel that you “got through” the whole thing; a book isn’t over till it’s over. So how then, should we read the Best American Magazine Articles? Out of order, I’d say, skipping at least one article, but keeping it to read again.
Elizabeth Wadell is a contributing editor to The Quarterly Conversation.
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