Friday, June 8

Summer Reading, Part Five: The Reader's Guide to Periodical Literature

Recently I went to my local library with an odd request: Did the Reader's Guide to Periodical Literature still exist, or had it been replaced by the Internet?

The reference librarian looked me over and sighed. It may still exist, she said, but the library hasn't purchased it since 2001 and few people have ever used it, or asked where it was kept. Once a massive multi-volume record of articles published by magazines and organized by subject, it's easy to see how this valuable research tool had been replaced by search engines, but it saddened me. It's one thing to do a Google search on the name Muhammad Ali and get 2.6 million results in 0.13 seconds but it would take you much longer, and more key words, to get, say, a specific selection of magazine articles from 1967 regarding his refusal to register for the draft during Vietnam. You'd still have to hunt those articles down but you'd have a better idea of what was recorded at the time in one quick glance.

The bane of many a school research paper -- now almost completely replaced by Wikipedia -- and no longer the source of much frustration in learning how to properly cite a reference work, I hereby dedicate this last segment on alternative summer reading to The Reader's Guide and to the idea that summer reading doesn't have to be about books.

newspapers

One of the best summers I ever had in terms of reading came the summer of the Watergate hearings in congress. I was thirteen and didn't have a clue what was going on but it all seemed very important. There was no discussion of politics in my house because (I only learned when I was an adult) my parents were of opposing political parties and kept silent to keep the peace.

Pity then, that I couldn't see what the world looked like from the mindset of the day; pity now, that it seems unlikely that people from opposite parties could live under the same roof.

That said, all this non-talk in the house of politics drove me to try and figure things out for myself and every day I had at my disposal the best tool available: The Los Angeles Times.

It is still very clear to me, all these years later, the memory of that first morning I commandeered the coffee table to make room for the entire newspaper. The newspaper was a book in my eyes, and I wanted to view the book as a whole. I distinctly remember how lost I felt at first, reading names and places and processes and procedures and feeling the intimidating weight of everything a newspaper had to offer. But I was determined.

I started with anything Watergate -- that's why I was there -- but quickly began to read about people and places I'd sort of heard about. A few years earlier our local paper put out a weekly digest edition of current events for classroom use so I had some familiarity with what a newspaper would contain, but I hadn't counted on their being so much news! And daily! Here's a section with letters and opinions and a political cartoon making fun of the president! This section talks about movies and music! Peanuts comics I had never seen in book form!

It might seem like I'm making fun, but I'm not. Before that first day I thought of the newspaper as something adults read, some boring part of adulthood. I never took the newspaper for granted after that.

A few years later I had a teacher who tried to get us to use our homeroom time to read the newspaper. She unabashedly had presidential campaign materials decorating one of her walls (Carter*Mondale placards outnumbered Ford*Dole signs 3 to 1) and she would clip interesting news stories among them. I was one of the few who read the newspaper during that time -- mostly to avoid homework, which my friends were busy doing last-minute, homework I would later hastily copy. Most of my friends found the news boring and I didn't see the point in trying to teach them otherwise.

With a little guidance, summer is the perfect time for younger minds to read the newspaper. If there isn't a current events assignment attached it might take a little more prodding than normal, or it might take less given that it's "free reading" without a test attached. I haven't checked out any Lexile or Flesch-Kincaid readability tests lately, but the last I heard the New York Times had a 7th grade reading level. Most papers fall at or below the NYT in readability, depending on readership and locale, and even within a newspaper there are various levels of readability. Good news for readers of the sports section: sports journalists tend to write at a higher level than the rest of the paper, pushing adjectives, similes and metaphors onto sports fans with greater frequency than an SAT prep course.

Walter Cronkite once wrote an article titled "How to Read a Newspaper." Some of the statistical information is a bit dated (I think fewer than 65% of the population gets their news from TV anymore), and many people under the age of 25 might never have even heard of the man who was once considered "the most trusted man in America", but the strategies for approaching a paper are solid even for the most dubious of news sources.

I'd also like to suggest a couple book titles that I think are essential not only to understanding the news in all its formats but in understanding the power of how media and the written word can be manipulated. The first is a handy little tome that's been in print for over 50 years now called How to Lie with Statistics by Darrell Huff. In it's breezy 80 or so pages it covers some of the ways information can be misused, including how simple charts can be manipulated to create certain effects (i.e. most infographics in USA Today) and how certain words can imply meaning that isn't necessarily or completely truthful. This book, along with it's equally slender partner The Elements of Style by Strunk & White (and perhaps the US Constitution) should be required materials in every high school backpack.

John Allen Paulos' A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper would be another highly recommended title for anyone who actually wants to understand the news. Middle grade and YA readers are consuming information all the time but understanding -- even questioning the quality of that information -- is given little attention. This book reaches into news stories and pulls out their numerical "facts" and plays around with them so show that how a number is stated often misleads or misrepresents the statistical information involved. it is nowhere near as dry as I'm making it sound here.

newsweeklies

In 7th grade my social studies teacher (ah, Mr. Grove) suggested we not limit ourselves to local newspapers and that we expand our horizons to include reading one of the prominent newsweeklies, either Time or Newsweek. It was very deliberate on my part when I caught my mother in a distracted moment and told her I need $12 for some school supplies and, oh, could you make it a check and leave it blank so I could fill it in? Four to six weeks later my mom met me at the door when I came home from school holding my first issue of Time magazine aloft, demanding to know when I subscribed. I explained it was for school and she scowled; I assumed it was because I hadn't been fully honest though I later suspected it was because Time was considered the more conservative party line newsweekly and my mom was decidedly more liberal.

I read Time magazine cover to cover. If I had read any of my class textbooks as religiously as I read that magazine I might have actually earned some good grades. I can barely remember what the heck the Treaty of Ghent was but I vividly remember to this day the special edition concerning CIA-taught torture methods used in Central America (this was in the late 1970's, which shows that torturing political prisoners abroad isn't a recent phenomenon). I even remember the specific names of some of the torture techniques, so vividly were they drawn and planted into my head.

Just a thought: What if, instead of textbooks, we published weekly magazines for students that contained materials and lessons for all their classes? They could keep the magazines and build a collection -- use their art class to build storage boxes and teach them how to bind volumes -- and have a growing library of all their studies! Naturally they would have to hold the same quality of commercially produced magazines, but the content could be solid and being produced on a weekly basis would allow for current (and relevant) events to be placed contextually alongside one another. Or is that just too radical an idea, to make educational materials fun, relevant and interesting?

By the time I hit high school I had switched to Newsweek and mailed in a "bill me later" subscription postcard for Rolling Stone magazine. I paid for RS with money from my first job and am proud to say I was a subscriber back in the 70's when it not only covered music but politics and popular culture and had staffers like Cameron Crowe, Hunter S. Thompson, Joe Klein, Greil Marcus, Lester Bangs, P.J. O'Roarke, among others. As I got older, RS seemed less hip and I ventured into Spin (for culture more than music, the first magazine that featured a monthly column on AIDS while the Reagan Administration denied its existence) and even later Options (for music that was way off the charts).

I sorta miss what those magazines did, and did for me, over the years and I don't know that there's anything really picking up that slack today -- maybe Mojo for the hardcore music purists out there. Most of what kids seem attracted to in magazines today is what they have been told to like, the crassly created advertisement delivery devices we recognize as Teen Vogue (or anything with the word Teen in the title), FHM (the triumphant return of misogyny), and, yes, Rolling Stone which has lost so much of its original backbone that it doesn't even rate as a cartilaginous fish much less the political shark it once was. It isn't that there aren't good magazines out there, it's just that the bad ones have got their alluring tentacles down to a science.

For the young set, yes, go to the library and check out Cricket and Cobblestone and all their relatives , and for the slightly older kids I'd say purchase a subscription to a newsweekly and a topic-specific magazine of their interest (Communication Arts, Sports Illustrated, Found, Premiere, ReadyMade...) in their name. Even if they end up reading them out of boredom at least they're reading, right?

tabloids

The Bat Boy. The Alien that predicts presidents. Elvis sightings. These and many other fine pieces of American journalism have all appeared in The Weekly World News the "mock tabloid" creation of those geniuses behind The National Enquirer. This gem appears in supermarkets all over the country and as much as I hate to admit it I don't think there's a humorous periodical that's been able to touch this since the collapse of Spy magazine.

It's hard to imagine a more perfect publication: it appeals to those who believe it's every fiction and to those who "get" the joke and feel all the more superior for it. I have seen the WWN's rival, The Sun, and there's just no comparison. And what else can you buy that provides this much entertainment for a buck. You practically can't get a candy bar these days for a dollar.

But is it quality reading? About ten years ago I read an article about how journalism graduates were having a tough time finding jobs because newsrooms were downsizing and papers were consolidating and one of the best paying jobs were at the tabloids. So, despite their lowbrow sensibilities, you've got Berkeley and Columbia and Northwestern grads pretending to be redneck Americans complaining about liberals and creating detailed histories of the appearance of Jesus on foodstuffs. It might all be crap but it's well-written crap. Bring one home every once in a while and see if it doesn't replace a night of television.

'zines

I'm sure they're still out there but not like they used to be. To some extent, you're reading one. These days what many people put on the Internet in the form of web sites and blogs is exactly the sort of things one finds in zines. Opinions, how-to articles, factoids, more opinions, computer generated designs or cut-n-paste masterpieces, whether fan- or hobby-based or thematically connected, the zine was a first step toward the democratization of the individual voice that is now the given hallmark of the Internet. DIY (do it yourself) was the mantra, born out of the punk movement, and is as alive today as the nearest photocopy store.

Instead of suggesting readers go in search of zines, I'm saying they should get out there and produce a zine of their own! Why? Because it's fun, because it involves writing (which requires reading), because it is an activity that staves off summer boredom, because in a rule-filled world it offers an escape from rules and expectations. Did I mention fun?

I mean it. I've created a few zines in my day and despite never turning legit and running a media empire I did manage to get my zine picked up for distribution and actually sold a few copies to strangers in places as exotic as Singapore and Portland, Oregon. It was always a financial loss but I never did it for the money.

Having gone to art school I learned quite a bit in a formal setting about layout and design, printing and binding processes so I didn't need much in the way of instruction. But in this post-print age kids might need some visual inspiration and instruction and for that -- yes, you guessed it -- I have a couple books to recommend. Whatcha Mean, What's a Zine? The Art of Making Zines and Mini-Comics by Mark Todd and Esther Pearl Watson is a great sloppy mess of an instruction manual for the serious and casual zinester alike. It covers the full range of topics, from what to write about, how to lay it out, printing types and styles, even resources for conventions and libraries that collect and display zines. This book can be read in a day and used as a spring board to produce several issues of a zine throughout a single summer; everything in this book took me years, and a lot of trial and error, to learn on my own.

For more of a read about a zine, with a bit of how-to thrown in, try Zine: How I Spent Six Years of My Life in the Underground and Finally...Found Myself...I Think by Pagan Kennedy. Kennedy reprints the eight issues of her zine and gives explanations and historical background for her personal zine, which brings up another great point about zines. Many zines out there were personal narratives, observations through the individual eye on a particular subject or interest. Even if the zines were little more than expanded diary entries or summaries of what happened at different music club shows the zine somehow managed to elevate the personal life into something slightly more meaningful.

I would totally be remiss if I failed to mention Francesca Lia Block and Hilary Charlip's book Zine Scene: The Do It Yourself Guide to Zines. In addition to being co-penned by the slinkster-cool Ms. Block this book has a very grrl power feel to it, but a totally suburban-acceptable grrl power. A gay friendly, totally suburban, grrl power vibe. Like zines, books about them take on their own personalities and choosing the right book makes all the difference. Boys will probably want the Whatcha Mean... title while girls would do well with any two of the above. There's also plenty of zine info on the Internet, of all places.

I'm not trying to suggest that zines have the power to act as a form of therapy, morale boost or increase a zinester's sense of self-worth... although they can. As the saying has been hacked to death, the journey is the destination, and a zinester's journey no less so. With a little financial backing (and the promise not to meddle) plenty of bored summer readers could become, overnight, content providers for their friends in need of some good summer reading, if not future media moguls.

Let a thousand zines bloom!

* * * * *

I'm pooped. A little over six weeks ago I conceived this idea of suggesting alternatives to summer reading and, as with most of my projects, bit off way more than I could chew. To meet my own expectations I probably should have started six months ago, but that's not when I originally conceived the idea.

After each of the five posts in this series I usually had a couple other ideas that I realized could have fit, a couple more titles, some better worded suggestions. That's just the nature of the beast, isn't it? I joked with myself that I should probably start collecting these leftover ideas for another installment about summer reading next year.

Next year. A year ago I hadn't even started blogging about kidlit, I couldn't have conceived where I would be this year. Perhaps by this time next year I will have an entirely different approach to summer reading to share. Perhaps not. We'll see.

Thanks to those of you who have checked in, both in the comments and those who have lurked in silence. If this has been a help to you or a reader in your life, if you found any of these ideas successful (especially if you have any success stories) I would love to hear about them. I am also considering some back-to-school ideas for a post at the end of the summer, taking suggestions for essential reading that might be a bit off the beaten path. Feel free to drop me a line at delzey (at) gmail (dot) com.
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