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Stranger in a Strange Land
The Reading Cult
No one reads the New Yorker." So said our consultant, Mark Bricklin, the editorial guru at Rodale Press (Men's Health, Prevention; $500 million in revenues). What struck me was not only the relish with which he made this pronouncement, heavily seasoned with scorn, but also a sense of deja vu: Our consultant from last year, Mark Mulvoy, the now-retired editor at Sports Illustrated, the second-most profitable magazine in the world, had issued the same judgment—followed by the cat-that-ate-the-canary smile of a man who knows he is saying something slightly heretical.
And heretical it was. Why would two very successful editors in the word trade attack the most obsessively word-oriented general-interest periodical in the world? I could understand if they were mad at the alleged sacrilege committed by editorial diva Tina Brown, but their ire was aimed at the ideal itself: at the folly of capturing people's attention solely through good writing on important topics in long articles on gray pages. "Get real."
From a business perspective, their advice was sound. We need to target a niche, sell the benefits, service the readers' needs, yank them in with every editorial and design tactic possible, blah, blah, blah. (I hope you have enjoyed the slightly airier borders in the last few issues; that's the fruit of consultants.) But from the perspective of the reading cult, that fragile but vibrant community that lifts up the printed word as a privileged means of discourse, these men were blasphemers.
One of many surprises in my life has been the discovery that reading takes more will and planning as I grow older. A few nights ago I really did mean to read chapter three of Jack Beatty's The World According to Peter Drucker (Free Press, 201 pp.; $25), an attempt at systematizing and introducing one of the greatest minds of the twentieth century (Drucker is the father of "management" studies and coined the term postmodern). Written by an Atlantic Monthly senior editor, ...