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July 17, 2004

Harper's Considered Annoying

Posted by Mike on July 17, 2004 5:15 PM

So last year I got a subscription to Harper's from a school child. I think I paid a little extra for the privilege of helping out a school, but that's o.k. I had to sell sausages and special "smokey flavored spreadable cheese" in a crock for fundraisers, and that stuff was both a pain to deliver and nasty. Most people in my neighborhood probably scooped out the cheese and kept the "quaint decorative crock."

My patience with Harper's comes and goes, so it was a risky subscription, but I thought of the children and picked it because it was fairly cheap and because my Salon Premium subscription has already helped me remember why I hate the national weeklies courtesy of the free subscription to US News and World Report (with resident troll John Leo). Plus I was pretty entertained when Lewis Lapham appeared on the NBC morning talk show from his office, cigarette smoldering in his hand, and told Ralph Nader that he'd smoke in the privacy of his office if he wanted because it wasn't bothering anybody else. Smoking has a long, honored tradition among newsroom types. I learned at the feet of a man who started phone conversations with a sharp inhale. So Harper's had the "Lewis Lapham: Celebrity Dick" thing going for it. Also, I guess, having been burned by subscription scams in the past, I wasn't even sure I'd see a single issue.

All was well. Nice to walk past the latest issue on the newsstand and think "that'll be headed to my door no later than tomorrow... no need to so much as lift a finger to pull it down from the shelf!"

Then I got my first "Your subscription is about to expire mail," which was "signed" by Lewis Lapham himself. It had a few obligatory stroke-off sentences about me as a Harper's reader (magazines are the worst for this sort of reader flattery, and it makes me a little unhappy that of all the traditions in the print mag world Salon has to choose from, it sticks to the "your subscription to Salon shows you to meh meh meh mehhity-fucking meh") before launching into the weirdest sidewinder curve I've ever gotten as a pitch:

"Lewis," or the intern down in circulation masquerading as him, told me that some people actually believe that magazines ask people to re-up early, then pocket the proceeds from the overlap! I was to understand that he was just writing to let me know it was time to resubscribe, and that, believe him, it wasn't about bilking me out of an extra issue or two worth of revenue, so please put that idea aside and just re-up.

I toyed with the idea of scanning the letter and putting it up as a PDF, just to have something to build into a screed about Harper's mining the most discernible fault of its readership, which would have to be an ungodly powerful conviction that they are so much smarter than everybody else. Lewis' proxies down in circulation clearly believe they can make their readers buy things simply by implying that not buying would be the earmark of a ignorant rubes who concoct foolish magazine subscription boondoogles because they're too dirt stupid to realize Lewis has better things to do with his time, and too miserly to be willing to lose a few cents anyhow.

My scanner, however, wasn't attached to the computer at the time, and I am very lazy. So I let that opportunity go. Plus you never know if Lewis himself wouldn't, perhaps, bestir himself to turn up in comments and write a custom umpty-fifty page essay condemning me. He did, after all, authorize a graphic file of his signature to be laser printed on to the letter the circulation intern wrote for him. He's clearly concerned that his message get out.

Then Harper's stopped coming, because the letter ultimately pissed me off. A simple "Hey, you're running out in a month" would have probably gone ignored, too, because I can barely remember to zip my fly most mornings, but it wouldn't have made me put aside my indifference to timely action in favor of aborted plans to complain bitterly about the wasted brainpower of inventing a conspiracy that I'd know better than to believe so the circulation clerk could establish his/her belief in my non-rubeness.

So we've been a month or so without a new issue, and I've thought about "Lewis'" letter a few times since then, wondering what pile of papers it's in, and whether I should go crawling back. Like at least one other person I know, something about having a long-time magazine subscription makes me feel like I've anchored myself somehow.

I've tried it with ReadyMade (god... make that thing go away soon... it's like BoingBoing for homeowners only it takes up actual physical space under my coffee table, and always seems to spawn extra issues just when I think I've recycled the last of them) and Whole Earth Review (which was once cool, disappeared, and came back bearing the same name but resembled that story in the latter part of the Chronicles of Narnia where the monkey dresses a donkey in a lion skin and parades around yelling 'Look everybody, Aslan!')

Web subscriptions don't work, either, because they lack any real physical substance. I guess you can recreate the effect of a stack of "New Yorkers" by carefully mailing links to Salon stories to your friends so often that it sort of implies that you don't care about the annoying Web ad non-subscribers have to endure, but I'm on record as being against using e-mail to communicate third party ideas, and that limits me to just mentioning that I read Salon a lot, and who do I ever talk to in person?

I was ready to commit to Harper's, so their attempt to trick me with their whole "manufacture a scam then tell all the readers they're too smart to believe the same dumb things as the penny-pinching red state huckleberries" scam, and that hurt. They misjudged me: I'm a part of the demographic that thinks it's smarter than everyone else because it's too smart to fall for appeals to how smart it is, and "Lewis" completely missed that.

Today, I got a poignant reminder of the situation in the form of a guilt issue. They cut me off for a few weeks, let me hang, and now they've sent me a freebie, meant to stir me into action. Looking at the pile of "meh" mail crammed into the mail holder I installed over our mail slot, I can see a plaintive little reup envelope from Harper's, far too skinny to contain another phony-baloney letter from Lewis or his proxies. Just a simple reminder. In a week or two, they'll send another one, maybe with an actual guilt letter. I've been here with Utne, Newsweek, Linux Journal, The Nation, and a few others, and I can tell the WIRED subscription I got for free is about to try that even though I've had 12 forgettable issues to remind me that you don't have to see the little ponytail to know it's there.

I think b!X and Gruber are gonna have to be it. I'll get a t-shirt out of Gruber, and a better sense of what the hell's up with Portland out of b!X. Neither will stack up under my coffee table (though b!X is hawking printed editions), but unless b!X breaks his fairly taciturn approach to fund-raising or Gruber fails to break out of his "post-fundraiser inability to post" slump in the next month or two, they seem like good values, and I'd rather pay for them than Lewis Lapham's half-wit intern.

Anyone else want to offer candidates for subscription dollars?


Boy, I hear you on that smilin' scold John Leo. My U.S. News subscription couldn't run out fast enough--I HATED it. Between him and the way their "Washington gossip" page only said catty things about liberals and Democrats, I felt like a pack of dunderheads forced their way into my house every Wednesday and made me be polite to them.

I get Harper's, I like it, and I like Lapham's lead column the best, but I'm often put off by how very meta it can get: the rigid intellectualism, the aggressive esoterica. The Index is often disturbing, but just as often lacks context. Overall, I would say I'm most put off by the overarching bleakness of its worldview. There's an ironic and/or cynical wit in the weekly Harper's Review e-mail that I find lacking in the glossy. Still, there's always something I learn, or an argument to file away, and then there's cranky old unapologetic Lewis, for whenever I waver after a tough week in Bush's America.

The New Yorker is my favorite magazine; the day it comes each week is always a good day, and I expect I will subscribe to it until one of us dies.

I would say your mistake was reading the damn letter in the first place. Why the hell? You're either ready to write your check, or you're waiting for the next warning; either way, the letter is ad-copy junk mail, written by some Subscription Dept. boob who thinks s/he's all that because s/he's fresh out of Bard and working at LibCent.

You could always try The Atlantic--the conservative mag that poses liberal because it still thinks liberals are cooler. Todd seems to like Washington Monthly, too. I've considered that one. But I get too many magazines already.

Posted by: pk at July 18, 2004 1:25 PM

One of my many compulsions is reading just about anything. Especially over my breakfast cereal. I can't not read stuff in arm's reach when I'm eating.

So yeah... it was a mistake to read it, but I usually can't help myself and this was my first ever letter from Harper's, so I was doubly curious.

Hate the game, dude. Hate the game.

Posted by: mph [TypeKey Profile Page] at July 18, 2004 1:37 PM

In the course of this post you mention you're "on record as being against using e-mail to communicate third party ideas"; I wondered what this means, and where's the record?

Seems as if it means, "Use email for PERSONAL ideas," or something like, no? Kind of a "Don't-just-forward-stuff" statement?

Am I far off?

Posted by: Carl Caputo at July 19, 2004 7:47 PM

Hi, Carl,

I'm pretty cross about getting too many forwarded things.

The closest thing I can present in terms of a record you can consult would be here:

In which I say:

My own desire to blog is partially built around my loathing of "cool link" e-mail. I hate getting it because I spend a ton of time on the Web and see a lot of it days before someone with less time gets around to it. I hate sending it because enough of my friends are blunt geeks who won't pass up the opportunity to say what I'm thinking about things they may have already seen. So, I put up a blog and people have to pull it down: it isn't wasting their time, like opening a mail they think might have something about the real world only to find me telling them that there's a rilly, rilly cool article they already read a week ago would be. And if they want to waste time, there are a ton of opportunities provided in chronological order, with archives by category and a search engine.

Blogging, I guess I should note, has become its own form of obnoxiousness for some people to the extent they pass on saying "I already saw that three weeks ago" with "I blogged that."

That's why I've become enamored with what I'm thinking of these days as "warm" blogging: People who aren't out to establish their cred or cool as much as they are interested in just passing along what they spot that's personally interesting, without the BoingBoing-esque levels of "such a short shelf life we've thrown it out by the time you read it."

That's easier to deal with. Maybe I should just say "I've come to enjoy people who aren't haughty, know-it-all bastards" like I know I can be. :-)

Posted by: mph [TypeKey Profile Page] at July 19, 2004 8:11 PM

Mm. "Haughy, know-it-all bastards" do grate, don't they? (We?) Sort of a hazard when combining a desire to articulate with an urge to find out stuff.

Truly though, your take on things as represented by my skim through PuddingTime so far has seemed warm indeed. If you're looking to toot your own horn, I haven't noticed it yet. It's been straightforward fun lurking about here so far, and I hope it continues on and on.

Posted by: Carl Caputo at July 20, 2004 5:13 AM