Monday, May 5, 2014

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

Part 2: How I defined “read” and other lessons of content.

Last time I wrote a little about a project I finished during Lent this year: reading an issue of The New Yorker every weekday. Here’s a follow-up.

By way of defining the term “read,” I’ll be honest: I didn’t read every word. I knew it wouldn’t make sense to commit to reading every single word of every issue. So I went in with some expectations around what I would and would not read.

At the risk of sounding like Donald Rumsfeld and his known/unknown knowns/unknowns, here’s how that shook out.

Some pieces I knew I’d read, and I did. For example, I read all the short stories (though I didn’t enjoy them all). The fiction is, after all, one of the main reasons I get the magazine in the first place. And then I knew I’d also read articles about writing, especially anything by John McPhee. In fact, anything by John McPhee, regardless of topic.

Some pieces I knew I would NOT read, and I didn’t. I skipped nearly everything about politics in the issues from 2005 and 2006. I skipped much about US healthcare reform (hooray for Canada), coverage of the New York mayoral races (I don’t live there), restaurant/movie/show reviews (ditto). Yes, all the tiny print stuff in the front.

Some pieces I that I thought I MIGHT read, and I did. I know my own tastes and could predict the kinds of things I would find interesting: Profiles of many politicians, judges, and writers; of drugs and drug companies; of physicians and scientists and mysterious diseases. Even, or especially, people I’d never heard of: fashion designers, chefs, and other artists. Reviews of books—the short ones especially, but nearly all of the longer ones, too.

And then I developed favorite writers. To “the writer for The New Yorker that everyone in Canada has heard of,” Malcolm Gladwell, and “the writer for the New Yorker that everyone in Oklahoma pretends to have known in high school,” Burkhardt Bilger, I added some other names: off the top of my head, Ryan Lizza, Adam Gopnik, Jill Lepore. I was already a fan of Atul Gawande’s insight into healthcare (a notable exception to my previous list of subject-matter exceptions) and the benefits of checklists and coaching. I will always at least attempt to read what these people have to say about topics they find interesting.

Some pieces I thought I would NOT read, and didn’t. I have a hard time working up energy for pieces on crime, crime bosses, gambling, and talented addicted people who are attempting comeback. Also, I yawn over analyses of “today’s media landscape” or “publishing”; I’m not that interested in bugs and snakes. To my shame, I have a limited capacity to read about active wars, though I did attempt to read more of these articles than I thought I would. And I tend to steer away from “profile of life/literature in [country with a description that includes the words “former Soviet,” “war torn,” “in the wake of,” or “massacre”].” Some of these limits I feel worse about than others. Some of these limits I tried harder to overcome than others—but I went in knowing I wouldn’t read all of these pieces.

And finally, one of the main reasons to read The New Yorker: pieces I didn’t think I’d read but I did, and with complete enjoyment. In a couple of cases, they were articles that later became books; I read some excerpts or reviews of books that are on my “to buy” list. Sometimes, I overcame an antipathy or ignorance (such as never having seen “Breaking Bad”) to read an actor profile. I asked myself, “What could there be to say about panda reproduction?” and found the answer: Lots of fascinating stuff, turns out. Did you know that death certificates were, in a sense, invented? Me neither. A company in China is doing work on the human genome under some slightly different ethical assumptions than those prevalent in the U.S., you might (not) be interested to know.

One of the side benefits was the in-depth exposure to ways people structure their articles. Always beneficial to see how they’re done well (which is why I’m also a fan of Nieman Storyboard and their “Why is this so good?” feature).

Would I do it again? Hmmm. I’ll get back to you.

And I should make this plain: This reading project wasn't the equivalent of a religious or spiritual discipline. I don't mean to make light of those who find meaning in Lenten sacrifice or spiritual learning, or of their practices. I'm just sharing what I did and why, and its value.