Michaelangelo Matos on Magazine Archives
Michaelangelo Matos on Magazine Archives
The major difference between books and magazines is tense. A magazine issue might be one for the ages, but most of the time it lives only in the present. A book made up of magazine articles tends to assume its contents will stand up in the decades to come, but you never know. As someone who holds on to far too many back issues, clippings, and photocopies of magazine and newspaper articles, I've often had the experience of going back to a piece I remember loving and finding it less substantial than I had thought. It may have defined its moment, but it didn't outlast it.Still, remembering how something felt at the time-not how history has come to account for it-has its own appeal. And as history continues to expand and accumulate, it's all but impossible to imagine there being only one "official version." Endurance counts for a lot, but time can also obscure any number of in-the-moment false starts, unfinished thoughts, and margins teeming with ideas that can tell us about their time and place in a far different way than the established record.That might help explain the recent spate of complete digital archives of various magazines. Perhaps the funniest thing about this trend is that it was begun by that most classicist of publications, The New Yorker, which in 2005 issued a set of eight DVD-ROMs that included scans of each of its 80 years' worth of pages. While The Complete New Yorker has since been superseded, technologically at least, by a hard-drive version (plugs right into your computer, costs way more), other venerable magazines are starting to catch up: This fall, Rolling Stone and Playboywill both offer their entire oeuvre on DVD. While no other big titles have announced plans to do the same, it's hard to imagine heavy hitters like Time, Vanity Fair, or Esquire not succumbing to the temptation of proffering their legacy in expensive, easy-to-access formats sometime soon as well.This is a significant shift. Over the years, The New Yorker, Rolling Stone, and Playboy have been more than well represented on traditional bookshelves by greatest-hits anthologies, officially sanctioned essay collections, and historical scrapbooks. Certainly, these new archives are the result of technological innovation as well as consumer interest. But their bloom also signals a lid being put on those magazines' legacies; It's hard not to see these collections as tombstones for their magazines' vital cultural presences.Magazine readership is changing, and a lot of people who turned to magazines for one specific thing-information, features, gossip, reviews-are finding those things piecemeal on the internet. For those of us who truly love magazines, the actual object carries a specific kind of weight, a reminder of something less transient than digital bytes. It's the difference between an album and a single, a novel and a story collection. You don't have to value one over the other, but a great larger work elevates its parts, rather than simply stacking them neatly in a row. A great magazine turns a multiplicity of viewpoints into a cohesive whole.It's hard not to wonder if magazine readers will soon seem as dated as fans of the vinyl LP. Digital collections like The Complete New Yorker are aimed at those who are as interested in the minutiae of history-the way a specific time and place felt-as in the broad outline. Magazine geekery is more like this than most instances of cultural product hoarding. And it isn't just digital efforts that reflect this. Take Spy: The Funny Years and The Best of Smash Hits: The '80s, both oversized hardbacks made up of excerpts from, and stories about, the magazines. For fans of Spy and Smash Hits in the 1980s-and it's difficult to think of two other magazines as definitively 1980s as these-the books offer as much dirt as they do highlights. Shrewdly, both books position their parent publications in the center of the action rather than on its periphery. The Funny Years does this more explicitly, with its lengthy treatment of Spy's backstage drama, The Best of Smash Hits more implicitly, making it the more interesting book. But both magazines' primary modes would eventually spawn more prosaic variations, banishing them to the shadows before they quietly passed on.The Last Magazine, a collection of essays on the future of print magazines edited by David Renard, is another recent book worth noting. Renard figures that the bulk of what will survive will be what he calls the "stylepress": high-end specialty titles. Though the book curiously doesn't mention the fashion-magazine world-you can't tear out an oversized, saturated-color-print photo from a laptop, no matter how good your printer-he certainly has a point.People will always need something to read on the subway, and we remain far enough away from the flexible computer screen that the idea of not having physical pages to turn still seems alien. That said, when a cultural force runs its cycle, looking back upon it tends to take on more urgency than moving it forward. There's bounty in those back pages, for sure. Whether that will continue to be the case, though, is a question that grows dicier by the month.