Suppose you have $200 a year to spend on magazine subscriptions. You'd like to get journals that are informative but not dry; I assume you prefer publications that are not dumbed down, that assume you can understand words with more than two syllables. What should you buy? Here are my choices.
1. The Economist. I don't like American news magazines; with the exception of Insight, the weekly published by the Washington Times organization, they seem to be places where bureaucracy long ago triumphed over individual initiative. (According to New York magazine, Time Inc. is now so suspicious of its employees that armed guards have been placed in the employees' cafeteria to prevent the silverware from walking away. If Time can't trust its staff at lunch, can it trust them in the newsroom?)
The Economist, however, does things differently. Its staff reports and writes, eliminating the distortions that result when a reporter's copy is given to an in-house writer for "polishing." (Peter Drucker, in his engaging autobiography Adventures of a Bystander, tells of the occasion when he was the subject of a Time cover story; the "polisher" had, without seeing the dog, transformed Drucker's pet Pekingese into a bloodthirsty German shepherd.)
Moreover, The Economist's writers are allowed to express their opinions. Most reporters have beliefs, of course; and if they aren't allowed to express them directly, they frequently sneak personal views into their copy. The Economist, however, thrives on opinionated prose. Not only are its editorials, or "leaders," small gems of concentrated analysis (and, as a bonus, mostly market-oriented), but the statist thugs of the Third World are regularly portrayed as, well, thugs. If you want to learn about government mismanagement in Africa, Latin America, and Asia, The Economist is probably the single best source.
Lastly, The Economist provides a non-American perspective. Most U.S. publications tend to see the world as a stage on which Americans can create comedies or tragedies. So U.S. reporters rarely visit large portions of the world (South America unless people deal or use drugs; India; the black-ruled nations of Africa). But in recent months The Economist has reported, for example, on such phenomena as Latin America's turn toward Spain and the flood of emigrants who leave the poorer nations of Southeast Asia for the more well-off Persian Gulf states. These are stories that, because they don't involve the United States or its citizens, would not be covered in depth in the American press.
When I read Time or Newsweek, I feel like I am trapped in a public-television talk show, where journalists with egos the size of Jupiter (gas giants, like Hodding Carter or Elizabeth Drew) endlessly debate the meaning of the news. When I read The Economist, I feel like I'm at the end of a giant conference table, as scores of minions give me inside information from around the world. Perhaps this is why I read every word of The Economist—even the parts, such as the Finance section, that I don't fully understand.
At $85 a year, The Economist takes a big bite out of your $200, but it's worth it.
2. The New Republic. This magazine does it differently, too. Whereas National Review is as likely to run a piece questioning America's overseas military commitments as The Nation is to publish a defense of Charles Murray, The New Republic wisely hires writers and editors who disagree politically, then lets them slug it out.
For socialists, there is the reliably statist Robert Kuttner. For hawks, there are editors Charles Krauthammer and Morton "Yes, I'm Still a Democrat" Kondracke. And there are others whose paths are less predictable; Henry Fairlie, for example, had burned out for years but recently wrote splendid articles on how news of the American Revolution spread throughout Europe and the growing clout of the senior citizens lobby. (The title, "Greedy Geezers," illustrates another New Republic trait—gratuitous offensiveness.)
Best of all, TNR regularly hires market-oriented journalists to bash right-wing statists. In the past few months, for example, James Bovard did a splendid attack on Dan Quayle's major "accomplishment" in Congress, the Job Training Partnership Act, which uses tax dollars to pay businesses for moving plants from 100 miles north of the Indiana border to 100 miles south of it.
I read a good many political magazines. The New Republic is one of the few that I enjoy. At $56 a year, it brings your tab to $141.
3. A science magazine. Science magazines tend to have more interesting information in them than most other types of magazines. While some are dull—Natural History has little to recommend it besides its pictures, and Discover is slickness without substance—here are three that I can recommend.
The Sciences is the best-written science magazine. The art is also superb.
To my taste, its best articles are the ones dealing with "softer" sciences; in the September/October issue, for example, anthropologist Carol Molony discusses whether or not the "Stone Age" Tasaday tribe in the Phillipines was a hoax. The Sciences recently won a well-deserved National Magazine Award for the best magazine with a circulation under 100,000.
Technology Review is the most political science magazine; the regrettable Lester Thurow has a regular column, and the editors delight in running pieces by the Institute for Policy Studies' Michael Klare on defense matters. But it is not predictable. So, for example, it also publishes Manhattan Institute fellow Peter Huber on how biotechnology regulation has needlessly blocked new products from coming to market. And one issue last year featured ecologists Michael Dover and Lee Talbot, who showed that traditional agricultural practices in the Third World are both more productive and more ecologically sound than methods imported at vast expense from the West. These surprises help make Technology Review the most unpredictable science magazine around.
Scientific American is the dull boy on the block. While never trivializing the issues, SA frequently errs on the side of stolidity. Still, the articles are worthwhile—if sometimes hard to follow.
The most one of these science magazines will put you back is $24, leaving $35 in your magazine kitty.
4. The Atlantic. I was once told a secret that explains why The Atlantic at times seems so dull. It turns out that most articles published in the magazine are sent to outside reviewers. If the reviewer says, "You can't say that! Publishing this will seriously damage The Atlantic's reputation!" the editors, so I was told, promptly remove the "questionable" material.
Maybe it's the same judgment that led the editors, in the past, to publish articles on arms control written by 10! count 'em, 10! authors. But the political articles, with the exception of those by Nicholas Lemann and James Fallows, are not The Atlantic's strong suit; what makes the magazine first-rank are the nonpolitical essays and reportage, on everything from mathematics to beer.
Note to economists: until recently, The Atlantic's subscription rate was $9.95 a year—the same as in 1971! Now it's $14.95. And that still leaves the astute magazine buyer with enough to get a year of REASON and a gourmet banana split.
A postscript on the dilemma of succession: Roy Childs recently discussed in this space (July 1988) a changing of the guard at National Review, where John O'Sullivan has become that magazine's editor. A succession also seems in the works at The New Republic. Editor Michael Kinsley is taking a six-month sabbatical to do a stint as editor of the American Survey section of The Economist. Robert Wright will be filling in as editor; the "TRB" column will be written by Hendrik Hertzberg.
Why Wright? "Look at the masthead," says an insider. "All the other New Republic editors are TV stars, and Bob is the one who stays in the office and works."
Wright may or may not make changes in the content of the magazine, but I hope he continues the Kinsley practice of allowing free-wheeling debate. These liberals want to regain the presidency, but if they are ever to do so they must abandon the principles that convinced many voters that liberals love to tax success and subsidize failure. Controversy is TNR's lifeblood; block the debate, and the magazine will stagnate.
John O'Sullivan, meantime, would do well to follow Kinsley's example and open up National Review's pages. There are as many divisions on the right as on the left, but you'd never know it by reading National Review. The retirement of publisher William Rusher may encourage more openness; Rusher believed Ronald Reagan was infallible, thus ensuring that most critiques of the administration were spiked.
The George Bush administration will probably be much like Gerald Ford's—run by decent traditional Republicans who abandoned their philosophical principles long ago. But a centrist Bush presidency should give both left-wing and right-wing journalists plenty of time to reconsider what they stand for. I look forward to enjoying the debates.
Contributing Editor Martin Morse Wooster was previously Washington editor of Harper's and an associate editor of The Wilson Quarterly.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Magazines: Adding Up to Good Reading".