‘The Believer’ magazine, Issue 68, January 2012
There is only one, minor drawback to walking the streets whilst ingesting the wonders in each monthly copy of The Believer: a fear that strangers seeing me with it will, clocking the giant title, presume that I am some sort of fundamentalist believer: in Mormonism, Scientology or whichever incident it was that Jehova was apparently a Witness too.
In a sense, I am: discovering an early copy whilst browsing in a jaw-droppingly wonderful second-hand bookstoreshop in San Francisco a few years ago, I was unable to resist shelling out the few dollars for it after reading the name of half a dozen of my favourite authors blaring out at me from the cover. An annual subscription soon followed, (including postage fees to the UK or Japan, which cost more than the magazine itself), and when I discovered that it was produced by McSweeney‘s, whose quarterly short story compilation I had recently become equally addicted to, this was soon joined by their daily updated iPhone app, Small Chair; their new sports quarterly, Grantland; and pretty much anything with the McSweeney’s logo on the spine, (including an annual subscription to their Book Club, monthly books winging across the Atlantic, hot off the presses). In short, I am a fundamentalist Believer in good, new, alternative literature and journalism, and the Believer fulfills this spiritual craving in me everytime it comes, shrink-wrapped, through my letter-box.
Every month, in around 88 pages, editor Dave Eggers, (he of the geniusly titled ‘A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius‘, and other works of staggering genius), manages to fill my head with things I never knew I wanted to know, from the most ridiculous spectrum of subjects. One page I will be reading a fifteen page article on the origin of sofas, the next the true story of someone who decided to wander lost in the mountains for weeks, topped off with a philosophical/neuroligcal look into whether all of our decisions are pre-determined, or whether we in face have free choice. Occasionally pretentious, often roaringly funny, invariably thought-provoking, I love The Believer more than I used to love The Beano comic, Look In, Smash Hits, and 90 Minutes football magazine combined. Which, for anyone who knew me back when I wore holes in school trousers, is a lot.
To give you the general idea, I thought I would go through this month’s copy, section by section: a dissection of a literary creature, as it were, but beware: I am passionate about this magazine, (as I hope you have guessed by now), and when I am passionate, I write.
This may not be a short blog entry…
Front Cover: There were no problems with the banner title this month as the opening article, on erasure, (the literary act, not the 80’s pop group), naturally meant that the giant BELIEVER had been whited out, (a bold ploy for a magazine to eradicate its own name). It seems that The Believer’s cover structure, unaltered monthly but for a striking new colour scheme each issue, has become iconic enough to no longer need mere words.
That article comes immediately after the ever-patchy letters page, (occasionally interesting, often just a forum for readers to show that they are as clever the contributors), and is fascinating. I learned that the most recent Jonathan Safran Foer book, (his favourite novel, shorn and sheared of words and sentences to create a whole new work), which I regularly reach the brink of buying at bookshops, was far from a new phenomena.
Next: One of The Believer’s regular columns follows, Daniel Handler’s ‘What the Swedes Read’ in which he reads one work from one Nobel Literature Prize winner and reviews it, an idea so simple and sweeping that it makes me wish I’d thought of it, (even more so as I have never even heard of any of the authors so far, let alone read any of them). This month’s author, Carl Spitteler, (Switzerland; prize: 1919), revolved more around the difficulty of getting hold of any of his works in English than the actual chosen book.
Then: One of The Believer’s specialties, an out-of-the-blue article on something fascinating, obscure, and yet which left me wondering how I’d never heard of it before: the rise and fall of Polari, the sixties slang of gay British men. Full of jaw-dropping revelations, (that the commonly used English term for something not very good, ‘naff’, is in fact a Polari word for a heterosexual, an insult taken back by its targets, or that it features in places I really should have seen it before, from Morrissey album titles to entire subtitled scenes in ‘Velvet Goldmine’); fascinating history, (Polari apparently being an amalgam of argots from carnie folk, actors, criminals, Italian street performers, (hence its name, from ‘parlare’), and even “…traces of Romani, Yiddish, and Lingua Franca, the common tongue of Mediterranean ports.” Oi vey!); and linguistic debate, (is it a language? an anti-language? a creole? merely a lexicon?). It even has room for literary beauty, quoting in full a song from Polari’s immediate predecessor, the theatre and circus slang Parlyaree, the tale of a busker avoiding his landlord which is beautiful even without translation:
Nantee dinarlee: The omee of the carsey
Says due bion peroney, manjaree on the cross
We’ll all have to scarper the jetty in the morning,
Before the bonee omee of the carsey shakes his doss.
Sedaratives follows, a page-and-a-half monthly raspberry to Agony Aunt advice columns, with a guest writer invited to playfully, insultingly, sarcastically, or sometimes downright abusively reply to readers’ (invariably ironic) concerns. This month, Beth Littleford, actress and early Daily Show correspondent, earned a 6/10 for me.
Next up: a thought-provoking piece by an LA Times columnist on the rise of ‘comment culture’ due to the ability of the masses to take offence at anything and everything someone may wish to say in cyberspace, (the tone of her piece, lamenting the degradation of ‘expert (or at least informed) opinion’ was ironically highlighted by a T-shirt I saw in the street later the same day: “Democracy: the ability of two idiots to out-vote a genius…”). I often enjoy reading comments on blogs/video sites almost as much as I enjoy the pieces themselves, but it’s true that the speed with which debate and common sense so often evaporate into abuse is shocking, and makes me happy that (for now, at least…), only nice people read this blog.
A poem follows: these can be a bit hit and miss, but given the scope for pretentiousness they are generally surprisingly good and accessible, this one being very enjoyable.
Then another regular, “Musin’s and Thinkin’s,” a faux (at least, I hope it’s faux), “stroll down folksy byways”, an always amusing, nonsensical, surreal page-long ramble by an Uncle Jed Clampett Hillbilly-style character.
Next: ‘The Process,’ a newish feature “…in which an artist discusses making a particular work,” this month focusing on a gorgeous owl photo collage created solely from mesmering, expanding circles by artist Fred Tomaselli. Short and surprisingly interesting.
To follow: the regular double-page helping of cartoons, a real mixed bag of nonsense, beautiful nonsense, art, rubbish, morals, scatology and bizareness. Don’t expect punchlines: Peanuts this ain’t.
The ‘Reviews’ section comes next: for me, this is always the section I am most afraid of getting through, when reviewers with a lot to prove comment on works most people have never heard of, from limited edition poetry collections to books whose authors have been dead for decades. This month fell on the disappointing side of the divide, although a recent remit to broaden the reviews to include art installations and other non-paper-based arts saved the reviews with a report on a small North Hampshire town which had a series of pianos deposited on its Main Street one summer day for people to play, guerilla artfare carried out by British artist Luke Jerram. Lovely stuff.
A double-page spread each month is given over to some lucky graphic designers to present some usually esoteric information in an intriguingly beautiful manner. (I’d never realised before how many regular features there are in The Believer, partly due to the diversity within those features and partly due to the length and breadth of the other articles). All that said, however, this month’s was a disappointingly prosaic chart of “…Top 8 seriously anguished soul singers.”
Next: four pages of doodlings from some guy and the friends he goes skiing with every year. Seriously. I never said everything in the magazine was always good, did I?
Then: one of my least favourite sections, a “Real Life Rock Top Ten: A monthly column of everyday culture and found objects.” Deadpan, often obtuse, full of stuff which, half the time, I can’t even tell whether it’s describing a book, film, song, newspaper article, or conversation overheard in a Brooklyn Bar. This month, I could at least spot a Tony Bennett and Amy Winehouse duet, which sounds intriguing.
Anyway, it doesn’t take long to get through this double-page spread, due to an interesting typographical detail: each month, the first half of the magazine sees the pages densely laid out in three columns of print, (which can make it feel almost like a slog sometimes with less engaging articles), before at the midpoint the pages shift to an easy-reading two column format, the point at which I know I have shifted gears to a swift, slick read through to the end, and the start of the four-week wait for the next fix.
The pages in the right hand getting scarcer and scarcer, we proceed with a writer I’ve never heard of, Laird Hunt, ‘in conversation’ with another writer I’ve never heard of, Harry Matthews, producing a not uninteresting , if sometimes pretentious back and forth which manages to both diss my beloved ‘Candide‘ and praise my beloved ‘Pale Fire‘ all in the space of a few lines.
And so to the home stretch, (I’m impressed you’re still with me. If you’re not still with me, I’m less impressed), and the article which first caught my eye in that San Francisco store all those years ago, and which I savour at the end of each reading like Robinson Crusoe would savour the last few bars of battery on his iPhone before it ran out: Nick Hornby’s on-again, off-again, thankfully on-right-now regular feature, the perfectly titled, (and perfectly written), ‘Stuff I’ve Been Reading.’
Good enough to spawn three highly recommended compilations, Hornby’s column is deceptively simple: it starts with a list of ‘Books Bought’; then a column of ‘Books Read,’ (often having as little to do with one another as a Boeing 747 has to do with a platypus); and goes on to explain with wit, passion and an incredibly accessible style why he’d bought what he bought, and read what he’d read, how good it was, and why he didn’t have time to read more, (usually involving kids, football, or the bothersome necessity of occasionally working).
I once spent practically an entire year reading more or less only the recommendations from these pages, invariably wonderful choices. Through Nick Hornby I have discovered (or, sometimes, rediscovered), entire new authors, (from Jonathan Coe to David Almond), and fantastic single books, (from Joshua Ferris’s Office-in-a-book ‘Then We Came to the End‘ to pre-movie days ‘Blind Side.’)
And then the feast is over, leaving only the bones to chew on: biographies of contributors; a teaser of next month’s contents; the end of a ‘micro-interview’ spread throughout the gaps in the magazine, (this month: Betty Cohen, “…a psychic medium and ordained Spritualist minister…”), and the postcards which are no longer required as
bookmarks magazinemarks. Postcards which are, for me, the epitome of The Believer ethos: stylish, arty, and something that, for some unknown reason, you want to keep and store for a very, very long time.