I have been reading Harper's magazine sporadically for the past fifteen years, and bought my friend James, who reads it faithfully, a subscription all those years ago which he continually renews.
Harper's magazine is an upscale publication that caters to a somewhat educated, or at least well-informed, readership. The magazine has been around for over 150 years, so it seems that they are doing many things right.
Probably the most famous feature of this monthly publication is the Harper's Index, a list of quantifiable statistics related to a timely subject. For example, the January 2002 Index includes the following (this is not the complete list):
Last year in which American's confidence in the federal government "to do what is right" was as high as it is today: 1968
Last day on which a total tally of those detained in US terrorism investigations was released to the public: 11/2
Number of the ten ammendments in the Bill of Rights that are violated by the USA PATRIOT Act, according to the ACLU: 5
Number of US colleges and universities that were asked by law enforcement agencies to release student information last fall: 220
Percentage that released the students' information without telling them: 90
and so on.
A monthly editorial by Lewis H. Lapham, this month's offering is entitled "American Jihad."
A collection of fiction, excerpts, letters and poems. Always of high quality, in my opinion.
Brief articles, poems, lists that are usually highly entertaining. For example, "Words of the War" itemizes the twenty most frequently words queried on Cambridge Online Dictionairies after September 11.
Essay length book reviews of non-fiction books and a set of reviews of new books.
Cryptic Puzzles with a twist
Created by Richard E. Malby, Jr., these cryptic puzzles always include an extra element of challenge. The set-up changes, for example this month the words may be entered in any direction, you need to figure out which way the particular response is meant to go before you enter your answers into the grid. Other times you must drop or add a letter to the answer, again, you need to figure out which one (perhaps the dropped letters will spell a person's name) before entering responses into the grid.
Overall this is a highly informative, entertaining, and well, classy publication.
Its slight pretensions (long-winded editor, occasional lapses in judgement particularly in regards to post-modern fiction) don't really detract from the overall quality; I've been reading this regularly for about a decade now and am still amazed by it -- not so much because it's an excellent magazine, but because it's still around, and it's been around for so long. When you look at the rest of the swill that's offered up as reading material for the great unwashed, you don't understand who's reading Harper's. Do they just read it and nothing else? Why aren't there more quality publications like it? If England's Punch couldn't survive this long, how did Harper's? Nothing else quite compares.
It's a delight to pick up, since it is usually a cover-to-cover deal: even the short fiction (snipe in first paragraph aside) is worth reading, a curiousity given how many magazines look at that category as pure filler. The Harper's Index is a classic; its curious statistics are painfully (often literally, given the America-bashing stance of many) funny -- my favourite was one from around 1990 about Republicans being more likely to enjoy S&M than Democrats.
That little S&M tidbit is part of what makes Harper's so rare, if not downright confusing -- most American magazines would not dare segue from a narrative about the effects of deliberate cough syrup intoxication into a serious political essay. Both are the magazine's forte, though.
The sequence about the cough syrup was side-splittingly funny -- he realised he was hungry, went to a fast-food place just before it opened, couldn't understand why it wasn't opened, and then finally couldn't understand the idea of a cash-for-product transaction. Perhaps a little lowbrow for some tastes, but the debauched hilarity of the "Readings" section is unparalleled in the world of low-brow mockery and satire.
Earlier I mentioned "America-bashing." It does this, which I appreciate, because, unlike myself, it does so sensibly. It isn't an argumentative magazine; the serious pieces are more like a genial talk from a scholar who also happens to be a witty personal friend. That the US is not always perfect is not a verboten topic here, which is a great relief from the feel-good pap in Time or even the more confrontational, this-is-America-so-deal attitude that the Atlantic Monthly tends to cop on its readers.
Which brings me right back to the original problem of wondering who the @@@@ constitutes its apparently stable reader base, since most Americans aren't too interested in hearing about people using Baby Orajel to perform their own dental surgery thanks to a lack of proper healthcare (honestly, I did get that one from Harper's), or letters going on about George W. Bush's cocaine use, juxtaposed with serious sociology and relatively high-brow fiction and other textual oddments. The combination makes perfect sense to me, but...
There's a nasty rumor floating about that I like to roll around naked on magazines. Well, if that were true--and I'm not saying it is--I would feel honored to roll in Harper's.
I could do without Lewis Lapham's often overly political and esoteric column. But the Index always piques my interest with hilarious or poignant statistics, like:
Numbers of channels offered when TV came to Fiji's Nadraga province in 1995: 1
Percentage change since then in the incidence of self-induced vomiting among girls there: +300
Then you have the Readings, the digest part of the magazine where they excerpt highly intelligent, funny, or stupid material published elsewhere. With articles like Jerry Jesness's explanation of why he's not allowed to fail high school students, a review of South Park by Child-Care Action Project, an essay by a Russian general on why all Russian teenagers should be required to have sex, Timothy Leary's stool pigeon excuse to the FBI, Harper's always manages a blend of pop culture, politics, and academia that engages a reader intellectually (as opposed to Talk).
But Harper's isn't just a digest--a mistake many of my friends make. It also consistently has three articles, two of which interest me, on subjects besides the latest bathroom practices of the stars, and also a short story of high literary standards. With writers like David Foster Wallace(1), Bob Shacochis, and Vince Passaro as contributing editors (who actually contribute), a reader can't lose.
And the pages wrinkle nicely when I roll on them.
1. You know, the writer that uses all those footnotes.
Until this month, I had been procrastinating on purchasing an annual subscription to Harper's. "Surely I don't need to read every issue, and I have so many magazines already," I tried to tell myself. Then I realized the truth, that I had been unable to resist buying the past 6 month's of the magazine off the newsstand. With it's irresistable social and literary topics, Harper's is like heroin to any academic worth his salt. While satisfying and joyous, each issue creates an insatiable craving for more finely crafted articles as well as the incomparably charming tidbits that fill its pages. While spanning as many forms of cultures and media as possible, the magazine maintains a pleasantly surprising high level of discernment. There is no filler here, only thought-provoking pieces by some of the most intelligent and witty Americans of our time. If you are becoming increasing disillusioned with the constantly decreasing quality of the popular media, seek an oasis in Harper's...
I might represent a somewhat different demographic in that I'm only 32 but have been reading Harper's for at least 6 years. I save virtually every issue, as there always seem to be at least one humors, thought-provoking article that are worth rereading later.
I subscribe to my daily paper as well as Newsweek and find this to be a taste of something different every month. I look forward to it in my mailbox and while the cover story isn't always something that would immediately hit me as "that's something I'm interested in or have to read", I often do get sucked into the stories.
One thing that they seem to do very well is summarizing or adapting books or other works, regardless of it it is for a cover story or one of the smaller articles. There have been a few magazines or books that I've researched or otherwise looked into after reading an issue of Harper's.
I'd take all of the politically-slanted comments here with a grain of salt. Personally, I think while the editorial sometimes may seem biased, I think the articles manage to expose or otherwise skewer both parties (all parties?) equally well.
Overall, just a great read every month. It is like a good meal, though; don't try to rush through it and read or dismiss every article. Read one, leave it on your table, then come back to read some more, and I think you'll find it an enriching experience.
Much like The New Yorker, Harper's is at the top of its genre. This literary magazine is in two camps: culling various glimpses into arcane articles (such as this Nov. "Muzzle Tov," a transcript of letters to a Jews for the Preservation of Firearms Ownership organization) and longer reporting-type pieces and fiction. The writing is superb and the magazine's refusal to kow tow to the latest trends in fashion and pop culture is a refreshing moment of honesty. The same crowd that enjoys The New Yorker will also enjoy this, and though the two overlap in terms of heady, intelligent content, their approaches are different enough that subscriptions to both would not be redundant. While rarely enough, the magazine does include some poetry from highly respected poets, but more would be appreciated. The oft-referenced Harper's Index can also be viewed online, but that is basically the extent of its Web offerings, unfortunately.
It is a dignified, well-written periodical that won't cease to amuse and educate. Even the classy cover design is a plus; does anything else even compare to it? No; only the Farmer's Almanac is less wavering.
If someone turned you on to the genius of The New Yorker magazine, and now you're hooked and want even more, a good step is to Harper's.
It's simply an excellent magazine with as venerable a history as any. But Harpers has a bit more bite to it, and a certain self-confidence that allows it to take on seemingly dry topics like the yearly grain harvest, or environmental topics, and bring them to fascinating life.
You will emerge educated each time you read it.
ALSO -- you already know about Harper's Index -- the one-page section of the magazine that provides a truly unbelievable, seemingly random collection of statistics: like this one:
Number of US Army bases in which space has been reserved for Wiccan soldier's seasonal rites: 8
Who knew that our soldiers were witches? Harpers grabs you and, as I said, educates you. Subscribe to it, alongside your NYer subscription.
It is always a joy to wait for the end of the month for my next month's copy of Harper's magazine. Always fresh and authentic in its view, always entertaining in its choice of authors. Thought provoking and sometimes a little shocking, Harper's brings to light government boondogles, civil right violations, and a tongue in cheek approach to subjects that is funny without being stupid. Good solid social commentary (perhaps a little to the left, but why not) without preaching
In today's conservative-dominated media, Harper's stands out as an oasis of balance and progressivism on the newsstand. Editor Lewis Lapham calls it like he sees it with no beholding to the Limbaughs and Buchanans of the world. The magazine as a whole doesn't pull any punches, either...a recent series on Henry Kissinger's war crimes in the Middle East and at home makes a powerful statement about what those in power in our nation can get away with, while the same actions would result in death in other countries. The letters section contains wonderful humorous letters from angry conservatives seeking to discredit the writers. It's a bold magazine with bold writers. Also, Harper's is one of the best places to go for good contemporary American poetry and fiction, which has little place in a publishing world dominated by money and special interests.
Under the supreme tutelage of Editor Lewis Lapham, Harper's Magazine consistently churns out intense, dramatic, sincere, frightening, uplifting, and challenging commentary. If others in the media censor their opinions in the face of big brother, Harper's makes up for it with brutally honest assessments of culture, politics, and world affairs.
At first look, Harper's seems a leftist publication, but if you read it a little more carefully, it's a lot more Mark Twain than Karl Marx. I'd call it centrist, but even that implies straddling the center between two extremes. Like Twain, Harper's is more of a somewhat irascible, yet always caring voice on the outside, not on one end of the spectrum or another, but rather on a different spectrum altogether.
The attitude is egalitarian, never pompous. The voices are reasonable, if sometimes angry or alarmed. Harper's is definitely not a liberal magazine in the sense of Marxist socialism. Harper's is liberal in the sense of Jeffersonian liberalism. It's opinions seem more focused on improving local cultures and economies and challenging the demagogues and central planners who seek to control the masses, be they Democrat or Republican. Perhaps Harper's is the Jim Jeffords of the magazine world.
Harper's is an eloquent and impassioned magazine that delivers carefully constructed and inventive views of the world each month. There is an overriding sense of seriousness and genuine compassion found in every issue. In a world where so many media sources are merely parrots for a larger corporate or political agendas, Harper's stands out as an autonomous voice of indignant opposition to censorship and blind nationalism. If you care about the world we all inhabit and genuinely want to discover how we might all get to a better place, give Harper's a read. It may not provide the answers, but it certainly raises all the right questions.