Magazine Menagerie

Photo by Kapp Singer

  • Grow, Hopkins Bloomberg Public Health, Johns Hopkins Magazine, Pittsburgh Quarterly, Stanford, The New Journal, and Yale Alumni Magazine, one edition each.
  • Pittsburgh Magazine, three copies.
  • The Economist 1843, five issues.
  • Popular Science and Smithsonian, six each.
  • Popular Mechanics, seven.
  • The Economist, fifteen.
  • The Atlantic, twenty-nine in a foot-high hoard.
  • Time, thirty-one in a shorter stack.
  • National Geographic: thiiiir-teeeee-six, I say to myself, an announcer’s drawn-out staccato playing in my head. Start date: December 2017. Exactly three years later, we’ve come full circle: the December 2020 issue arrived a few days ago.

These are all the magazines I’ve never read.

The collection started in my sophomore year of high school, when I just didn’t have enough time to read all the things I wanted to read. The magazines were the first to go. But I couldn’t just throw them away. I couldn’t bear the thought of throwing away what must be such valuable knowledge without cramming it into my head. So I told myself I’d read them “later,” that ambiguous expanse of time that stretches from tomorrow to my deathbed. And later, well—it just kept getting later.

Now I stare around me. There are magazines on my dresser, on my bed, encroaching onto my desk. It’s a little over a week since I’ve gotten home from the better part of my first semester of college. The December 2020 edition of National Geographic has forced me to a reckoning. It’s time to actually let go of my magazine menagerie. College is a new era, and 2021 is definitely a new era. It’s time to leave the old days behind. Christmas cleaning, here we come.

The first few choices are easy: magazines picked up from college offices, ad-filled guides to my hometown. Those can go in the recycling. 

Wait.

That’s a COVID-19 special edition. I might want that for when I’m old and can’t remember what the pandemic was like. And that’s “150 years of Yale women.” I should hold on to that, too. I’ll put those in the to-keep pile.

And now I have a to-keep pile. Still: four out, two saved, 133 to go. This is looking good, relatively speaking.

I pace relentlessly as I go through the stack. Do I actually care about power tool reviews? Nope. That article on venomous snakes looks strangely useful. Better put it to the side. Ah, for the days when we thought there were still “adults in the room.” Did RBG really only die in September?

Going through months and years of events I’ve forgotten about and things I’ve never known, I realize that this mixture of magazines forms an accidental time capsule. Once the observer gets past the mental shock of me having 133 magazines stacked neatly in a storage bin under my bed , the strange assortment becomes a window into whom I might have been over the past three years. Whether the observer is a future archaeologist or the reader of this piece, the window offers a glimpse into what I likely believe, what influences shape me, and what I think I want to know. They shout out my worldview, even if I’ve not once flipped through their pages. Just the fact that I was curious about personal airplane construction, Indian tequila, and institutional decay in the same moment says enough. 

That half-remembered curiosity brings to mind an essay I’ve just read, written by a friend for our English seminar. A spirited defense of the keepsake and the tchotchke, the essay offers that “casual hoarders cling to the memories of today, filling spaces with objects that encapsulate the people, places, and connections we fear we will be impoverished of tomorrow.” The magazines I’ve held onto don’t represent memories. They don’t tell the tales of my experiences. But they do represent a different object of value: knowledge and all the possibilities that come with it. 

At one point in my sorting, I come across the June 2018 issue of The Atlantic. “The Birth of a New Aristocracy” is the cover story. The cover image is a white baby in a Yale onesie, blue eyes staring straight at the reader. I take a break to read. The article is a detailed broadside against the “9.9%,” the neither uber-rich nor totally middle-class group the author sees as the primary beneficiaries of the growing national wealth, and opportunity, gap. It’s a sweeping indictment of “meritocracy,” and a prediction of dramatic and devastating consequences to come if inequality and social immobility continue to rise by mechanisms like “elite” colleges and overpaid doctors, lawyers, and MBAs. An apprehension grips me: What if I had read the piece when it first came out? Would it have caused me to make different decisions—to avoid maintaining the false meritocracy, as I’m apparently doing?

No, I realize. And even if the answer is the more nebulous “I don’t think so,” I understand something: it’s one thing to value the opportunities that come from knowledge. It’s another to place them on a pedestal. In the eyes of the article in The Atlantic, the “9.9%” do exactly that: they’re willing to go to nearly any end to conserve their access to the roads paved by a prestigious education. But in placing such an emphasis on the end, rather than the means, it’s worth wondering if they walk out of the ivory tower having learned anything at all. As a member of the upper middle class, which the author both identifies with and critiques, I was initially hesitant to agree with his argument that we are the exacerbators of what’s wrong in America. I still have my reservations. But when I set down his article and resume my self-imposed task, I realized that he is absolutely right about one thing we do wrong: we have a tendency to hoard opportunities like I’ve hoarded magazines. It’s a futile exercise for us, but one with incredibly harmful effects for everyone else. Adding one trajectory here, subtracting one there—it doesn’t matter. The value of an infinite set of potential futures doesn’t change.

At the midnight hour, when I finally finish the task, the room doesn’t look much different. There are still magazines on the bed, the dresser, the desk (and they might even be messier than before). I’ve decided I can chuck about half of them, including some from the to-keep pile, in the recycling bin, secure in the knowledge that my local government is unlikely to recycle them properly. I’ve justified saving some of this year’s issues by telling myself that they’re vital historical records of the pandemic, but most have joined the discard pile. The thirty-six copies of National Geographic are shelved in the study. And the copy of The Atlantic with the Yale baby on its cover? For at least the rest of the year, it’ll stay on my desk, a reminder both of lessons learned and of possibilities I’m not yet ready to forget.

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