Table Talk

A magazine should have the zest of a good dinner party

For this department a distinguished writer is asked to read the magazine's feature articles before publication and to comment or elaborate on them or take issue with them.

I grew up in the romantic age of magazines, back when only movies, radio and face-to-face conversation competed with print for America's collective attention. I remember sitting on the floor next to my mother's favorite chair, eagerly turning the lush and promising pages of the latest Vogue and Harper's Bazaar as she devoured them from cover to cover and then dropped them at her feet. I complete the mnemonic picture by placing my father in his chair just across the small living room of our rented house, smoking one Pall Mall after another, with the latest issues of Life, the Saturday Evening Post, Collier's and Blue Book in his lap.

Magazines in those days—at least the magazines my parents bought—were intimate experiences, akin to visits with knowing, worldly acquaintances. They were not therapists, or self-help gurus, or practical instructors, or starstruck gossips. Instead, they were fascinating companions, telling stories—some real, some invented—about the world beyond, in my parents' case, suburban New Jersey. Loyal readers waited for them to arrive, weekly or monthly, as if waiting for a cherished guest.

As an editor myself, I have always believed that the best magazines resemble memorable dinner parties, with writers and readers brought together for intriguing conversations. As at the most carefully planned parties, the guests are equally interesting, so that while the writers do the talking, the listeners enjoy responses sparked by their own knowledge and experience. This was how my parents felt about magazines, and how I will always feel about them, even as the level of sophistication declines and the level of condescension rises—general interest in a downward spiral with general curiosity. I suspect the editor of this magazine (whom I have known for years) considers himself a dedicated host. If, as someone has said, the Smithsonian Institution is America's attic, then he likely means Smithsonian to be America's dinner party—food for thought, with no concern for calories.

So here I am, at the door in my overcoat, asked by our host to comment on how good a party we've all just attended. I worry about ingratitude, and I'm hampered by an insider's knowledge of how difficult it can be to bridge the gap between magazine dreams and magazine reality. It's an odd job, writing a column that seems to invite a bite of the hand that pays me, and not a comfortable role. How many wonderful dinner parties do we go to in a life? How many magazines do we ever truly love? In a noisy, distracting world, what are the chances of assembling a table full of well-matched guests, or a table of contents of articles and essays that entertain each reader with the perfect pitch of a gifted raconteur? I've never quite managed either myself, though I've certainly had high hopes. Success depends as much on luck, timing and happenstance as on clever calculation. So it seems mean-spirited to complain at all about what has, all in all, been a very enjoyable evening, which, with the addition of a pack of Pall Malls and some Avedon pictures of Balenciaga dresses, might have satisfied Mom and Dad very nicely.

Because I'm left-handed, I tend to thumb through magazines back to front (perhaps giving my editorial work over the years a hint of dyslexia). In the case of this issue, that reverse order let me start dinner with dessert, in the form of the appropriately sweet " Changing Spots" by Edith Pearlman. In this memoir about how her mother's leopard coat, such a sinful luxury by today's environmental standards, became smaller and smaller over the decades, ending as a memory-jogging button in an 11-year-old's hand, Pearlman reminded me of a home movie of my own young mother, on a Christmas morning, showing off her first fur, a chic wool coat with an ample silver fox collar. How I'd like to have some vestige of the coat that, at the end of the Depression and the beginning of a world war, made my mother so momentarily happy. And how glad I was that, for a few minutes, I'd sat next to Pearlman at the table.

The same flash of recognition came reading the essay about Robert Capa and his joyful photograph of Picasso shading Françoise Gilot with a beach umbrella. I have always loved that happy snap and, coincidentally, as the ad hoc photo editor of a recent issue of Forbes ASAP, included it among a group of pictures illustrating the pursuit of happiness. Though I know quite a lot about Capa, and know his brother personally, I learned here about the death of Capa's lover during the Spanish civil war, prefiguring his own death in war decades later. But I'd like to have known how the author, my momentary dinner companion, felt about the photograph. Did it help her forgive Picasso for the sexist image severe feminist art historians have given him? Or did she never buy that particular irrelevance in the first place? In other words, why does she care, and does she care as much as I care?

Ditto for Mary K. Miller's " It's a Wurlitzer." Not only do I remember my thrill at first hearing (and seeing!) one of the great instruments played at Radio City Music Hall, I can still watch a mighty Wurlitzer rise up out of memory and fill the cavernous Castro Theatre, 20 blocks away from my house in San Francisco, with the musical equivalent of irrational exuberance. So I read the article and savored its many facts, but came away wondering what, if anything more than an assignment letter, drew Miller to the Wurlitzer. In a dinner companion, the first person singular pronoun can be as important as good manners. (Of course, there's a big difference between the first person particular and the first person gratuitous. The latter seems to use "I did this" and "I went there" to give an article unearned authority, while the former lets me know that the writer is exactly the one who should be telling the story.)

I'll admit that not every writer's subject matters much to me. I felt admiration, but little else, for the volunteers replicating Thoreau's cabin. For my taste, the Walden author has always been a bit woodsier-than-thou. And it seems that every spring, as the sap rises, so does another essay about harvesting maple syrup. The piece by David DeVoss on Ping-Pong diplomacy was a pointed reminder of how the most unexpected things can change the course of history, and briefly raises the tantalizing question about why baseball has not changed our minds about Castro (certainly a far less culpable figure than Mao). But it's also a reminder of how long ago the recent past can be, and an implied rebuke at how little some of the notable events I lived through mean to me now.

I won't go piece by piece through the issue; some of the writers are friends, and having had words fail me on many occasions (or was it I who failed the words?), I'm reluctant to take good writers to task for their labors in a very stony vineyard. You can never read enough about Goya, I suspect, or worry enough about the fate of salmon, or be reminded enough that the fear of knowledge has been—and goes on being—an indefatigable destroyer of books for thousands of years. But where are the personal connections that take stories beyond the level of facts, however interesting those facts may be? Perhaps, in a spin-blurred era where agendas lurk everywhere, well-meaning writers are backing away from such motivations as enthusiasm, passion and a powerful personal curiosity. In the end, though, there's a cost to complete abandonment of personal voice. We trust these writers, we find out things we hadn't known, we're glad the host invited them and us, and we'll certainly come again. But without knowing why our storytellers give a damn, will we?

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