My old magazines are unreadable because of the pandemic

Years ago, when I ran the first version of this blog, I wrote about how magazines were taking over my life. I kept a big stack of all the unread issues on my desk back then. The idea was to remind me that I needed to make time to read them. But in practice, this tactic only took up desk space and filled me with low-level but ever-present anxiety. I was always thinking, “I really need to deal with these magazines,” but I rarely did anything to achieve that goal.

I began to view my magazine backlog as something I needed to battle against. It was a war of attrition between me and the periodicals. This is a ridiculous way to think about a pile of paper that I willingly bought.

And yet today I long for the days when, despite the stress the stack induced, I honestly believed I could just get to these magazines when I felt like it. Magazines seemed to have a timelessness to them. My views were emboldened every time I read a year-and-a-half-old article that still held up.

Certain recent events have complicated this belief. Here’s the story of how I ended up with a big stack of magazines and how the pandemic all but ensured they’ll be recycled unread.

And no, it has nothing to do with my other pandemic-related reading problems.

A personal history in magazines

There has always been something alluring to me about magazines. I loved looking at the late-80s, early-90s copies of National Geographic and Newsweek that my parents and elementary school inexplicably had on hand. They were my first introduction to photography, different cultures, and world events I couldn’t yet understand.

Then I found out they made magazines about things I was interested in as a kid, like Pokémon and classic cars. Eventually, I switched to gaming mags and my parents bought me my own subscriptions. Around the start of the month, I’d check the mailbox religiously until the latest issue arrived.

That lasted until I went to university. I had far too much required reading to do to mess around with magazines. So I embraced more digestible contemporary media like podcasts and blogs to keep up with gaming news and current events.

But nostalgia has a way of catching up with you. After university, I ran the student paper for two years. As I was released, listless, into the unstructured, unfun world of post-university life, I missed reading important content on an old-school medium.

I first turned to newspapers, but the options in Canada are not very appealing to a twentysomething. The student paper was increasingly irrelevant to me as a graduate. What was I to do?

Re-embrace magazines, it turns out. Unlike newspapers, whose archetypal reader is a middle-aged, right-leaning man with no hobbies, magazines cater to far more interesting and diverse reader bases. They also offer far cheaper subscription packages.

Pretty soon, checking the mailbox became a treat again. I was even able to keep the stack under control since the economy of the city I lived in had been permanently devastated by decades of neoliberal policies and a recent recession (i.e., because I had no job).

Magazines win as our writer enters the workforce

Let’s fast-forward to where I was when I wrote the article I referenced at the top of this one. I had moved cities and started a new job a few months prior. My magazine stack was out of control.

It turns out you have less time to read when you have to work all day. Especially when your line of work involves reading other stuff all day. Don’t get me wrong, I still read for fun, but these magazines had to compete with books, comics, blogs, and all my other, non-reading hobbies.

I cancelled some of my subscriptions, but I also bought more one-off issues from Toronto’s many magazine stores, which were conveniently located near all my favourite areas to hang out. I regularly read an article or two on the subway, and more occasionally on the couch when I had some free time.

The stack was still pretty big, but I was okay with that. It was churning, after all. I was many months behind, but I felt like I could catch up.

More importantly, I was fine with some months- or years-old magazines because, it seemed to me then, magazines are far more timeless than social media or newspapers. Those two media are concerned with things as they happen, but periodicals take a deeper look at issues and events. They address context, and they stay relevant longer.

I don’t want to see a tweet from two days ago, but a magazine from a year ago should be full of stories that remain relevant.

It would really take some large, earth-shattering event to render the issues on my desk obsolete.

Then the pandemic happened

Oh. Okay.

One thing I failed to appreciate is that sometimes contexts can change rapidly. I knew logically that this had happened after 9/11, but I wasn’t engaging with media in the same way back then and so had never really seen it happen.

March 2020 disabused me of my previous thinking.

Life in February 2020 was not too different from life in February 2019, or 2018, but it sure was different from life in April 2020. In North America, that month in the middle was a huge turning point.

The new context to which we all so quickly became accustomed is missing from writing produced before this time.

My magazine stack is 18 issues high. Only three of these issues were produced from the living rooms, kitchens, bedrooms, and home offices of writers and editors as a pandemic forced them to work from home.

Now there is still some truth to what I believed about the timelessness of magazines. As I look at the headlines, few articles from the other 15 issues appear dated. But those stories are necessarily from a different context than the one we live in today. When I read them, they leave me with unanswered questions the writer never could have addressed anytime before March 2020.

Take for example an article in a 2018 Maisonneuve about people with disabilities fighting for better fashion. There’s no doubt that battle is unresolved, but it seems equally likely that the pandemic has complicated it. I want to know where these people are now and how they’ve changed tactics this past year and a half.

Or how about an essay in a 2018 subTerrain that lauds a trend in the literary scene toward small-press chapbooks. The author mentions going on tour to promote one of his own and meeting like-minded writers across Canada. Clearly, that’s not on anymore. How have they kept up this community digitally? How are these small presses faring without the ability to hold events?

Where these issues will go from here

A few months ago, I moved the stack from my desk to a less conspicuous spot on my coffee table. It was an admission that I was unlikely to deal with these magazines, and that doing so no longer seemed pressing.

At some point, I’ll accept reality and recycle them. Maybe I’ll try to read the short stories and poetry in each before I do. But it’s unlikely I’ll read the 15 magazines that have been rendered obsolete by world events no one could have predicted.

Perhaps the other three will seed a new stack. Perhaps it will not go so quickly out of date.

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