Goodbye, Old Frenemy: Breaking The Subscription Spell

October 23, 2014

burgess meredithYesterday, after five consecutive years of subscribing to a certain magazine, I finished my last issue. Its increasingly shrill warnings — “Last Issue Alert!” “Don’t Miss Out!” — had no effect on me. I threw it in the recycling, made another coffee and got on with my life.

I won’t tell you the name of this magazine, but it comes out once a week, it wins Pulitzers, and it’s required reading for most journalism students across the United States. It publishes cutting investigative reporting, stunning photography, “I’d-never-have-thought-of-that” cultural writing and massive profiles. Some say it’s the best magazine in the United States.

It also published its fair share of hype, overly complicated arts criticism, meandering thinkpieces and vanity writing. Some weeks, it was utterly forgettable. Some say its prime passed in the 1960s.

Every single week, for five years, I read all of the above. I read it cover to cover. I read reviews of plays that would never come to Minneapolis and documentaries that couldn’t ever screen in our neck of the woods. I puzzled over cookie-cutter profiles of celebrities that were obviously placed by a hot-shot publicist and found myself rolling my eyes at a certain writer’s mention of her vacation home in Italy for the hundredth time. It made me fall asleep while reading more than once.

Don’t get me wrong: Good reporting can change the world. I never did find what I was looking for, though. Was it inspiration for my own monumental piece of writing? Did I hope that it would subtly lead me to better writing, clearer thinking and worldliness for all? Or was my fetish for “learning” shackling me to the idea that next week’s issue would contain all I ever needed to know?

I don’t know, but I’m sick of it. So, in order to reclaim my favorite pastime, I’m doing the analog version of unplugging. I’m excited to break the subscription spell. It’s time to take a deep breath, clear my schedule and read for fun again — after all, reading shouldn’t feel like a shotgun wedding. I’ve started to feel the same way about my ink-and-paper magazines as I do about the newsletters, articles and digests that show up in my inbox every morning: “Can’t I just have one day to catch up?”

Life never stops moving forward. Once I accepted that I can never really “catch up,” it felt so relieving to depart into my sea of books in search of something totally different.

For instance, though I claim to be literate and a veteran reader, I’ve never read Faulkner, Vonnegut or Bellow. I’ve never read Austen, Brontë or Dickinson. I’ve never read Kerouac, Plath or Carver. That starts to change now.

There’s that great episode of “The Twilight Zone” where Burgess Meredith, a henpecked and worn-out bank teller and book lover, survives a nuclear bomb while inside his vault. He gleefully commences to gather all the books he’s never had time or attention to read into great towers on the steps of the library. It’s his own vision of heaven: All the people who hassled him are gone, and all the books he can possibly want are within reach. Just as he bends down to pick up the first book, his glasses slip off and break — and all his dreams are dashed.

The episode’s title? “Time Enough at Last.” Without any subscriptions coming my way, I think I’m nearing a similarly ecstatic state. I just hope I don’t break my glasses.