Years ago, when I began my OWN subscription to The New Yorker (instead of filching stacks of old copies from my father or grandmother on visits home from college), I resolved that if I could not, in fact, read each issue cover-to-cover, I would at least read one piece per issue that didn’t initially grab my attention.
This resolution was not only an extension of the “don’t judge a book by its cover” (even though we all do) dictum we learned in kindergarten; it came also out of years of experiencing the delightful surprise of loving a book that you hadn’t expected to love. And I suppose I learned it in part from my dad, who was always reading everything, even my teen magazines and Roald Dahl books, just to see what they were all about.
Many people have noted that the digital age allows each individual consumer to carefully select what he or she will consume, and things are so tailored on the Internet that even the advertisements ‘magically’ show you what you are likely to be interested in (full disclosure: books, shoes, and graduate school.) A friend recently marveled that the American Girl company sent her an unsolicited catalog within a week of the birth of her first daughter.
Whereas boredom used to send me to the bookshelves to take up and read something I wasn’t initially interested in but grew to love, it’s now possible–easiest, actually–to move through life looking at, listening to, reading, watching ONLY those things that appeal to you at first glance. If it doesn’t grab you right away, you have literally millions of other options, and away you click.
And that’s why I subscribe to magazines: because, yes, while there’s plenty to read online, I like the solid boundaries of the magazine–its beginning, middle, and end. I like coming across articles that don’t initially arouse my interest and then finding, to my surprised delight, that there are whole aspects and points of view on politics, the universe, the human mind, or art that I never even considered.
I am no Luddite: I stay in touch with folks around the globe on a daily basis, read pre-publication galleys on my Kindle, download podcasts, audiobooks, and university lectures, tweet, and in fact subscribe to the digital versions magazines from one of the poorest countries on the planet, and I’m grateful to be able to do all of that.
But I wonder–and maybe worry a little–about the effect that it has on us to be able to move through life constantly engaged and stimulated, and never by something that we encountered by chance, through boredom, or just because we were flipping idly through a magazine.
My friend Karen Swallow Prior has an award-winning essay up at Christianity Today’s This is Our City project called “How I Learned to Love my Literal Neighbor.” I told her it reminded me of this old Peanuts strip:
Here’s just a taste of Karen’s essay:
“Both of us had been raised in the country, in fact. So living on a lot the size of a postage stamp in a sea of mass-produced buildings stacked up against each other—even the small variations in architectural details followed a pattern—had never been our style. But it was a place to rest our heads during those busy, building years of our marriage. I was teaching and working on my doctorate while my husband traveled, playing music on the regional church-coffeehouse circuit. We weren’t home much.
As committed Christians, we took seriously the parable of the Good Samaritan. We understood that the people whom my husband played for, my peers at the university, the students I taught, those we met through church and volunteer activities, and the strangers we ministered to on overseas mission trips were all our neighbors.”
But we were so busy loving our parabolic neighbors that we had neglected the literal ones.
And she goes on to tell the story of how she grew to love her (literal) neighbors, including an (adorable) little boy who
“likes to help me do my barn chores. He uses his own manure fork, which he requested for Christmas, to help me muck stalls. He likes to check for eggs in the henhouse and proudly carries home the ones he finds. His mother says he gets upset if anyone else eats “his” eggs. Sometimes, she says, he waits out on the back deck of their house, watching for me to come out to the barn to do the evening chores. When he sees me, he hollers for me by name. And I respond in kind.”