The Best Books for Print People, 2017
Jann Wenner, Tina Brown, and New York magazine take center stage in our annual list of the books that remind us that magazines, at their best, represent a culture unto themselves.
As magazine media appears near what may be a final retrenchment, it is natural that we reach back with nostalgia on its last golden age with some of its own characteristic style and rigor.
And so our annual list of “Books for Print People” leads with two of the best books on that history in recent years. Both remind us that magazines at their best represent a culture unto themselves. And they do so in carefully curated, designed media environments that direct readers’ attention, mood, perspective in ways that still elude digital media experiences.
Joe Hagan’s delicious Sticky Fingers: The Life and Times of Jann Wenner and Rolling Stone Magazine turns the journalistic values of the magazine in its heyday on the founder. It is witty and well-written, dispassionate about its subject, and as concerned with the surrounding culture as its subject. Hagan recognizes that Wenner is a burlesque of his own generation’s descent from idealism to cloying consumerism, ambition and celebrity. Laced irresistibly with sex and star walk-ons, there is a dark tale at the heart of this about our own cultural declension.
Coffee table books don’t come much better than Highbrow, Lowbrow, Brilliant, Despicable: Fifty Years of New York Magazine. Its reflection on the magazine that tried to reflect the sensibility of a city is done through a blend of oral history, tons of New York’s best illustrations and covers, and generous excerpting. Magazine mavens will enjoy the inside baseball recollections of the magazine’s founding and internal battles.
The book organizes itself in magazine style – dividing itself into sections recalling how New York covered politics, style, celebrity, food, et. al. While generally celebratory, the book offers mea culpas for many bad calls over the years. It is the most fun aging print lovers can have in an evening.
Tina Brown’s Vanity Fair Diaries is as lively and engaging as Brown always has been. She captures well that last gasp of magazine relevance she helped breathe into two of Condé’s flailing flagships.
Playboy: The Complete Centerfolds, 1953-2016 is a larger and much more satisfying update of an earlier attempt at reprinting all of the magazine’s signature feature. This time we get some thoughtful reflections on each era by some of the major scribes that the “just for the articles” Playboy reader followed: Robert Coover, Robert Stone, Paul Theroux, Jay McInerny, Elizabeth Wurtzel, et. al.
While Playboy may have intended this collection as a reassertion of the nudes it restored to the publication this year, the book appears in the year of #MeToo. Here are 734 examples of women posed and served to the entitled male gaze.
Phaidon Press’s lush but typical coffee table treatment of Annie Leibovitz: Portraits 2005-2016 reflects the declining powers of its subject. Like her old comrade Wenner, Leibovitz seems to have stopped penetrating celebrity and is merely finding artful ways of reifying it. There is no Whoopi in a milk tub provocation here, no wit, nothing to make us reflect on who these people are, what celebrity means. Nevertheless, we get an enjoyable demonstration of pure craft. Leibovitz is still wonderful at staging, lush imagery, making stars (and us) feel comfortable in their own masks.
Douglas Ellis’s The Art of the Pulps is a thoughtful, if wonky, history of pulp magazines in the guise of a picture book. In fact, the well-informed intros to each major genre of potboiling magazine fiction are extended by highly detailed captioning of the piles of extravagant imagery that characterized the great pulp age. We get just enough of the history we need to appreciate how pulp genres, tropes and styles shaped all of popular culture in the last century.
A single Connecticut county, Fairfield, played an outsized role in magazine and newspaper history. As Vanity Fair editor-at-large Cullen Murphy recounts in Cartoon County: My Father and His Friends in the Golden Age of Make-Believe, his cartoonist father John Cullen Murphy (Prince Valiant, God’s Jury) and family lived in a patch of America that also included New Yorker cover artist Charles Saxon, Beetle Baily inventor Mort Walker, and more.
This personal account is part biography of his father, thoughtful contemplation on the art of illustration and comics history, and part history of this small colony of creatives. Murphy is at his best reflecting on the personalities behind the pictures and how they informed the characters and comics we saw.
John D’Agata is the master analyst of the essay form. The Making of the American Essay brings us back to the earliest musing of American Puritans to Emily Dickinson to James Baldwin to Norman Mailer, many from the home to the essay, American magazines and journals. The earlier volume on The Next American Essay focuses on the best of the last several decades: John McPhee, Susan Sontag, George W.S. Trow, Jamaica Kincaid.
All of it is contextualized with a piercing and concise analytical prose from D’Agata who celebrates how the intimate, lyrical, sometime fanciful personal perspective can be more insightful than straight reporting. More than any other this season, this series reminds us how important periodicals have been to the intellectual life of the nation.
It may be dark days for the magazine tribe as 2018 budgets wreak havoc. Perhaps not coincidentally, this is the year book publishers have chosen to celebrate the lost golden age of periodical power.
Next week we will look at the many histories and reprints that are keeping alive the graphic legacy of magazine media – a century in which weeklies and monthlies visually defined the age.