Wednesday, April 23, 2014

What I learned from reading a copy of The New Yorker every day (except weekends) during Lent in 2014

Part 1 (of maybe 3?): Why I did it. 

I’m not a big traditionalist when it comes to Lent. Observing some discipline—giving up something or even adopting a healthy or positive habit—ranks at about the same place as making resolutions at the end of December. I’m more likely to observe either custom if I already have something in mind that I want to do.

This year, as I was taking stock for my “I want to read everything in my house before bringing new things in” project, I noticed I have a lot of back issues of The New Yorker. My sister bequeathed some of them to us in 2005 or so, when she was subscribing; we nabbed others in our book club’s “white elephant” gift exchange a couple of Christmases ago. I also have a current subscription, a gift from my brother. Although I read a lot (in both its “often” and “quantity” senses), I can’t keep up.

It would be possible, in theory—if I were someone else entirely—to simply recycle issues, new and old, without reading them. But you know, each issue has a short story. And I write short stories, and I like to read them, and these are “free,” having been paid for already. Add to that the incentive of all the rest of the articles: lots of interesting nonfiction! So, me being me, ditch an issue unread? Not possible. (One can transcend only so much of one's upbringing. Maybe.)

Ash Wednesday: here we go. I made some ground rules.

* Read one issue a day, but only weekdays, because weekends were for catching up.
* Choose each day’s issue at random. Because I was self-conscious about all the structure I was imposing on this project already, I introduced an element of surprise! The issues were in a giant stack that had been moved a few times, so the chronology was mixed, and I drew from the middle, top, or bottom, as the spirit moved me. Not mathematically random but not bad for a devotee of order.
Finish each issue before starting the next. If an issue had an article relevant to my nonfiction project, I marked the article, read the rest of the issue, and then put that issue with the other materials for that project to read carefully later.
* Repeat for 33 days (Ash Wednesday through Good Friday).

And that’s it! It was a great learning experience, both in terms of content from the articles and from the experience itself. 

What made this project work well for me now was the “random” element. Because I didn't read issues in any sequence, I was never tempted to search for follow-up letters about an article. Although it would have been interesting to see who had critiqued what (if anything) about a particular article, I didn’t want to take that time. Bad if serious scholarship had been the purpose of this project, but good since finishing was important.

Naturally, because I am also human and gaming systems is human nature, “choosing at random” became “pick a thin one, not one of the perfect-bound double issues,” which I also decided was okay.

And Happy Easter, I did it! I didn’t actually read a full issue each day. At one point, I read Friday’s issue on Sunday night, having powered through two others that same weekend. But usually I didn’t have more than one issue to read on a weekend.

So now I have 33 issues to recycle in some way. A few issues I’m saving for specific purposes; others will leave the house in some manner. And later, I’ll share more about specific things I learned from the project.

But at the moment, two snowshoe hares, with colouring somewhere between winter white and summer brown, are eating breakfast on our front walkway. A true sign of spring, calling me to watch.