Monday, April 11, 2011

Weekend Reading

One of the long-standing pleasures of the American culture I grew up with was the reading on Sunday of the heavy-to-hold New York Times. (It should be noted that its weight was achieved without any insert ads.) The Times had been the leading U.S. newspaper for many years because of the sweep of its reporting, especially of international news, and for the quality of its writing and editorial commentary. In my family, there was the added incentive of the crossword puzzle in the Sunday Times Magazine, an object of enormous conflict between my mother and myself over who would get to it first. I think my pattern of psychological interpersonal strategies may have been largely formed over this weekly interfamilial skirmish. In any event, it probably ruined a perfectly normal Oedipus complex.

That was in the the 1950’s and 1960’s. By the 1970’s, I was no longer at home and the price of the Sunday Times began to rise precipitously. Nontheless, I usually managed to find a copy and do the crossword puzzle. At the same time, my political bearings were shifting from the Roosevelt-Truman-Stevenson admirations of my youth — and of my parents. I first noticed a serious decline in the quality of the Times on its editorial pages where the observations became increasingly left wing, inaccurate and predictable. The Sunday edition remained a treasure, however, especially the magazine, the book review, the arts and travel sections. The Times even began to innovate beyond its old formality, publishing irreverent and often hilarious wedding notices notable for their pretension-shattering candor. And there always was the crossword puzzle, still the highpoint of difficulty, urbanity and verbal challenge.

After my college educations, and some international travel, I settled into a life of literary, and later journalistic, writing. I published a small newspaper in Minnesota for many years, and began writing freelance about politics and food for publications outside Minnesota. Thanks to supportive editors, mostly in Washington, DC, I began to be a regular op ed writer about national politics. My columns were widely distributed in major publications, although I did not appear in the New York Times. Meanwhile, the decline of this newspaper rapidly continued, and at some point in the late 1990’s or early 2000’s I realized that I no longer enjoyed reading most of it, nor did I want to write for it. Other publications drew my attention, particularly the Wall Street Journal (although it had limited international coverage, and very little cultural coverage). The decline of the Times had now severely infiltrated its Sunday edition, as fewer and fewer sections seemed worth reading. The Sunday price now rose precipitously. (It is currently $6.00 outside New York City.) At the same time, two other national newspapers began to publish weekend editions, and they were increasingly excellent, and much less editorially narrow and predictable than the Times. The Wall Street Journal began its Saturday-Sunday edition of WSJ Weekend in three regular sections and once-a-month magazine section. Its Review Section is simply superb, including book reviews, arts coverage, articles on culture, science, language, technology, commerce, humor, and art. The “Off Duty” section covers food and cooking, fashion, design, adventure, travel, and it has excellent columnists.

Financial Times, a British export, began to publish FT Weekend with three or four sections, including House & Home, and Life & Arts. The writing is first rate, the coverage is contemporary and inclusive. Its food cooking and dining writing is especially outstanding. It also includes in both the aforementioned sections, some delightful and incisiveweekly columnists. While not as thick as the Times, it is only $2.50, and much more interesting. Likewise, WSJ Weekend is only $2.00, and equally provocative and fascinating to read. I also read the Journal during the week. For my money, it provides the best daily editorial commentary in the U.S. today, and is increasing its national political and international coverage while still providing its incomparable business coverage.

But when I’m in a coffeehouse during the weekend, I must admit shuffling through the piles of Sunday papers and looking for the Sunday Times magazine. They recently abandoned some of their weekly columns on language and other interesting subjects (William Safire’s language column every week in the Sunday magazine was worth the whole price of the newspaper) and been replaced with a bunch of politically-correct themes. Nontheless, the crossword puzzle is still there, and on occasion, a formidable acrostic as well. It’s still the best crossword, and I still enjoy doing it, and the travel section remains interesting but I think the oversized, overpriced Sunday edition cannot hang only on those slender threads.

The Journal leans to the center-right, FT leans to the center-left, but both offer thoughtful, intelligent, provocative, well-written articles for the weekend reader to savor and digest. I wish I could say the same for the New York Times, but I cannot. I frankly don’t think it’s worth the paper it’s printed on. It no longer contains, dare I say, much of what’s fit to print.

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