My beach reading is journalism
My wife has a software application that helps her squirrel away stories she finds on the Internet so she can read them later. It’s a high-tech version of a tattered manila folder I’ve kept for years. Into this folder goes the kind of long-form journalism that certainly would make me smarter, wiser and more cosmopolitan, if only I’d take the odd hour or two to read it. I’m talking about densely factual op-eds on the future of Syria, multi-page thought pieces on the Chinese economy, lengthy magazine profiles of famous artists or statesmen, history articles from Smithsonian or National Geographic. In an earlier life as a bachelor, I could knock out this kind of stuff in a weekend. These days, though, I’m hardly into the third paragraph about monetary policy or the treasures of Tibet before my son tugs at my sleeve, my daughter asks for money or the dog begs for a walk.
But in reading as in marriage, optimism triumphs over experience. I still keep my manila folder around, hoping for the quiet interlude when I can train my attention on something longer — and perhaps more artful — than the grocery list in my back pocket.
For a few years, indulging one of my stranger fantasies, I labeled my folder full of high-minded journalism “bedside reading.” Perhaps no one except my wife could fully grasp my folly in thinking that I could delve into diplomacy, finance or high culture after I’ve crawled under the covers for night. She’s the one who hears me snoring over The New York Times after I’ve attempted to read for more than five minutes before sleep.
For those of us who insist on keeping articles that have aged to the vintage of magazines found in doctors’ offices, there’s always summer vacation. This is the time of year when tourists lug canvas tote bags of books to the beach, but I just passed a week near the shore with no higher ambition than reading the odds and ends in my manila folder. I was happy to catch up on a longish nature essay by Diane Ackerman, a puckish piece by book critic Michael Dirda, a thoughtful reflection on teaching by university professor Paula Marantz Cohen.
I know that new items will accumulate in my folder of unread articles more quickly than I can get to them.
I once thought that as journalism entered the digital age, writing would become more impermanent in migrating from paper to screen. In fact, the opposite seems to have happened. Nothing ever goes away on the Internet. The other day, while doing other research, I came across the full text of a speech delivered by historian David McCullough in 2003. It was a wonderful piece of writing, something I probably wouldn’t have discovered offline. But each new discovery, printed out in a clean hard copy, thickens my folder all the more.
The other day, an editor phoned to ask if I’d write something for White House History magazine. I obliged, quietly surprised that there was a White House History magazine. Two issues of the journal now rest in my folder, waiting to be read next week or, more than likely, next year.