I am an ambitious person, or so I told myself this year as I entered my credit card information on the New York Review of Books website. The subscription order came on the heels of what I came to call The Great Miscalculation of 2012. It was a glut, really – the kind of overzealous consumption more commonly seen in hungry animals. I had just signed up for subscriptions to the NYRB, The London Review of Books, The Paris Review, Oxford American, n+1, The Southern Review, and The Virginia Quarterly Review. These were to be piled on top of my existing subscriptions to The New York Times and New York Magazine. In the heat of the moment it seemed prudent. It seemed manageable. Now I will be hip to all of the literary buzz, I told myself. I will sate my cravings for fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and criticism alike. I will understand all of the jokes at parties.
Quickly my folly became apparent. While I was mostly able to stick to a rigid schedule of NYT on the weekends, New York on Monday, NYRB through Wednesday and LRB through Friday, I was finding that this left me almost no time for the enjoyment of actual books. Soon even that sliver of free time was vaporized when I received the first three months’ worth of quarterlies. I was being buried by the mailman. And so my once-rigid schedule turned to mush. Whereas I once read each publication cover-to-cover within a week of receiving it, I was now compromising as a means of preserving my sanity. I’ll read this issue next week, I’d say. Then, OK, going forward, I won’t read reviews of novels unless I’ve read the novel before. Then, I won’t read a review if its first couple paragraphs fail to grab me. And so on.
You see, in addition to being ambitious, I am also stubborn. I wanted to read in my apartment, and more specifically on my couch. But my efforts in this regard were complicated by something beyond my control: I had just moved in with my girlfriend. Faced with the reality of our shrunken New York-area apartment, as well as a certain someone’s affinity for Bravo TV, we were just discovering an eternal truth: living with someone means mastering the art of evasion. No matter how much you enjoy another person’s company, there are times when one would rather be alone. This is doubly true for avid readers, and perhaps triply true for ones (like me) who demand silence when they read. It was impossible – despite more-than-fair compromises on both our parts – for me to monopolize the apartment’s noise level. I was simply unable to reliably read each of my subscriptions as I had initially intended. I needed isolation. Like Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment, I found that, “It is necessary that every man have at least somewhere to go. For there are times when one absolutely must go at least somewhere!” (Those times often coincide with Real Housewives round-table recaps, by the way.)
That place for me became literally “anywhere but my apartment.” It became a local Indian restaurant – particularly on weekends when I could take advantage of their $9 buffet. It became the train on the way to my office every morning. It became several secluded nooks within cavernous Grand Central Terminal. Really, it became anywhere I could separate myself from a computer, a television, or the tyranny of office chitchat. In these places, my endless supply of reading material became my refuge. I no longer looked upon each week’s haul as a burden – a reading list to be tackled diligently like a job – but rather as a means of escape. I felt my mind become more at ease each time I folded an issue of the LRB in half – that tactile sensation so crisp and real compared to the computer screen to which I’ve become accustomed.
Best of all, I was now finishing the issues more or less on time, and I was able to enjoy actual down time at home. What was once a weekly challenge – a battle between concentration and fatigue within my own apartment – turned out to be a welcome daily reprieve – a chance to escape the drudgery of working life, or the discomfort of mass transit, or even the loneliness of eating lunch by myself. I minimized the amount of time I dillydallied on the internet, and I wound up better because of it.
None of my subscriptions stunk. I cherished them all. But some publications do things better than others. For instance the LRB’s “Diary” sections are consistently entertaining, and Oxford American’s annual music issue is a delight, but neither publication consistently appeals to my taste in poetry. The fiction in The Southern Review is beyond reproach, but it doesn’t offer any longform journalism. And so on. So in the spirit of this feature I feel obligated to raise one magazine above the rest, to name one magazine that appeals to more of my tastes than any other.
That magazine is The Virginia Quarterly Review. Over the course of the past year, I’ve found myself more and more excited to read each coming issue of the VQR, a university-affiliated journal founded in 1925 that bills itself as a “national journal of literature and discussion.” Every three months, a new, gorgeous edition (with almost no advertising) arrives in my mailbox; every three months, I tear open its plastic wrapper and sit down to read it immediately. Then I’m transported – often in ways that open my eyes – to Burma, Iceland, Somalia, or Bulgaria. I read even-handed, longform takes on topics as diverse as South Asian head-hunters, Peruvian gold miners, Kazakh victims of Soviet aggression, and Irish female boxers. I’m treated to hundreds of pages of poetry and photographs. I read personal, incisive essays on feminism. The months change, but the VQR remains the same: inspiring, thoughtful, engaging, and each time refreshing.
With the VQR in my hands, I no longer care about my overcrowded subway car or the din of commuters bustling around me. (Bonus: you don’t run the risk of looking like a cliché if you read the VQR in public – contrary to the effect of reading a certain other journal on my subscription list.) The VQR’s diversity of material and the high standard of each issue make each reading experience fresh and unpredictable. I find reasons to leave my apartment so I can spend some time alone with each installment. It isn’t a chore to read and it isn’t a challenge. It is, put simply, the best thing I’ve read all year.
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