The full benefit

A college housemate had a prophetic dream senior year. The revelation was delivered as a message in the dream, which he shared with us on waking: Magazines are evil.

As English majors, this was one of the options that lay before us in the months ahead: magazines, publishing, or perhaps more school, waiting tables, writing the obituaries of undead fashion designers.

I think of his dream often. I am minded of it as I am tempted by another offer, another $18 a year subscription, you save $83 off the newsstand price. Our newsstand is at Barnes & Noble, like a fake stage set, not the wind-battered hut of my youth, with its stacks of tabloids and the rheumy eyed newsman with his fingerless gloves playing a keyboard of coins. The older, English daughter still speaks of the newsagent, as if one exists here and we just haven’t gone. Instead, we succumb to the massive, theoretical savings and think, well at least the kids are reading.

Magazines are ongoing loops of desire. They are full of new things, ephemera, mostly this applies to lifestyle magazines, fused together with the aspirations and values of the editors. They create a low-level hum of dissatisfaction with who you are and what you have, when there is this fabulously organized 300-square-foot closet that you could aspire to. The kids are reading but they are also becoming informed about brands. My younger daughter’s knowledge of shampoo depresses me. Tell me something interesting you learned from National Geographic, about a place other than your own bedroom.

That is the worthiest of the magazines we order on behalf of the children and so when I see them on caller ID, as I am cooking dinner, I answer. The call lasts 1.48 infuriating minutes.

“First of all,” the caller says, “let me tell you how much we appreciate your support.”

Responding to a deeply discounted magazine subscription is hardly an authentic act of philanthropy.

“I won’t take much of your time,” she says.

Don’t play me, nice lady with the Wisconsin accent, I know you are going to take up too much of my time and you are going to try to sell me something.

Why would you call to tell me you are going to give me a map? Why spoil the surprise?

Oh, and a 90-minute DVD with an elaborate product description. Has it a value?

But you’re not really sending it for free, are you? It stops being a gift after so many days and then we have to return it … You’re going to mail me an errand.

“Please don’t send this to us,” I say. Uh-huh, uh-huh, yep, bye.

“Ha,” my husband says, when he gets home minutes later. “They have been trying to call us for the past two weeks. I haven’t taken the call.”

I describe the ploy to him. This is the true price of the cheap magazine. It’s like the price you pay for the daily deals massage, where you have to listen to the spiel on how in order to get the full benefits of massage you need to come every three weeks for 80 bucks a pop. It is not enough to read the magazine, you need to see it in 3-D.

I have enjoyed many one-off massages at hotels, as a birthday gift, last year through a living social deal. If I even had the time or the money to go every month, would I enjoy it as much? I wouldn’t, it would become a routine. You would fixate on the little nuanced things like people do when they have a bagel and coffee routine, where you are alternately delighted and repulsed by changes.

The more magazines come in, the less time I have to devote to them. I’m just flicking through the pages as I wait for something else to happen. I’m paring them down, letting them expire. We’ll keep National Geographic, in spite of their vexing upsell strategy. I know that I would get the full benefit of membership if I simply sat down and concentrated on reading one article and took advantage of enjoying what I actually have before me. Everything else is an illusory distraction and therein lies the evil.

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2 Replies to “The full benefit”

  1. The most evil magazines are the ones like InStyle–a toxic brew of celebrity, wealth, beauty and interiors. I know that John Berger says that our advertising culture is founded on envy, but they really take it to a new height. To paraphrase from an old SNL: InStyle is the Devil’s paint brush!

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  2. the only magazine I seem to read now is Sunset Magazine, which shows my age and stage I guess. Kids get Ranger Rick. I get the most joy from the very NOT cheap sunday home delivery of the NY Times. feels self indulgent but worth every penny!

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