My New Yorker Project: How I Tried Reading My Way to a More Interesting Life
This past fall, I was feeling boring. Not bored, but boring.
Every conversation I had with another adult fell into one of two categories: parenting and kids’ sports.
It makes sense that these two topics dominate most of my social interactions. My two elementary-age sons are athletes, and when I see people out in the world, it’s often in the context of parents gathering at a sporting event. But I started to have this longing for something more, for conversation outside of the walls of the elementary school and beyond the lines of the soccer field.
And it was fall, a season that is always a little nostalgic for me. Something about the crisp air and the clear skies and the leaves crunching underfoot reminds me of my early 20’s, being right out of college, and a time when the whole world seemed pulsing with potential. Anything could happen at any time, although usually it didn’t. But it could! Either way, it was very different from the highly scheduled, predictable life I’m living now as a work-from-home mother in the suburbs.
I was longing. I wanted to activate parts of myself that felt dormant. I wanted to feel a spark, be inspired by the world around me, and artfully change the subject to something with depth instead of comparing notes on the craziness of the schedules we had created for ourselves. I wanted to wow the people I encountered with my awareness and worldliness and unique perspective.
I wanted to be interesting.
It was on a regular Wednesday, after determining that 88% of our mail was destined for the recycling bin, that the latest issue of The New Yorker caught my eye.
My husband is a long-time lover of The New Yorker and refuses to let go of his subscription even when there are weeks upon weeks when reality takes over and issue upon issue go untouched and unread. But he can’t let go of the idea of being the kind of person that reads The New Yorker. Just like I keep one pair of high heels in my closet even though I wear them once a year and spend the following days complaining about the state of my lower back, because I can’t let go of being the kind of person who’s totally comfortable wearing high heels.
I’ve never had the patience for The New Yorker and had written it off years ago. But on this particular Wednesday, as my hand grazed the cover of the most recent issue, I saw a new potential. I decided then and there, that the answer to my longing could be addressed by reading The New Yorker, in its entirety, every, single week.
Brash. Highly improbably. I didn’t care.
I was on a mission to fill my brain with something of value (not just any old value but the high-brow sort of value). And maybe as a result, I would feel something new. Maybe I would feel smart, interesting, or at the very least a little bit superior. I would shed the dull suburban colored skin I had been toting around. I would trigger a chain reaction inspiring other people to up their game and be more interesting too, wake people from their middle-aged dormancy, and you know, change the world and all that.
For twelve passionate weeks I attempted to read every page of every issue to see if I could ignite something in myself, be more knowledgeable, more aware, and more tapped into the world around me.
This is what I aimed to find out.
Could reading The New Yorker cover to cover, every week, make me more interesting, and in turn, improve my life?
I start with The Style Issue. The articles about Julianne Moore, Betheny Frankel, and a four day, invitation-only Dolce & Gabbana couture event in Italy, go down easily. I read about Pakistani Americans prosecuted for sending money back to Pakistan, the complexities of good guys and bad guys in Black Mass, a review of a book that examines the cultural and political context of the Holocaust, and an overview of Picasso’s sculpture retrospective at the MOMA.
This is what I’m talking about people! Picasso! Was also a sculptor. Put that in your pipe and smoke it.
Because of the intensity of what I am attempting to do, I have to take The New Yorker with me everywhere. In an interesting twist, I find myself talking less and less to people at parents’ night and at soccer practices, because I am too absorbed reading The New Yorker.
I’m also hoping that as The New Yorker and I are out and about, people will notice what I’m reading. Because everyone knows that only the smartest, most interesting, and committed people read this specific publication.
Eventually, once I build up my knowledge base, I will come out from behind the magazine and wow everyone with my smarts, but for now I only display its three columns of dense text on my lap, with a silent promise of what’s yet to come.
Sometimes I chuckle quietly to myself–those clever cartoons!
The Pope is in town. There’s a party, and I drink too much wine.
The next morning all I want to do is watch something on Bravo to cut through the red wine fog, but instead I pick up The New Yorker. It’s an anecdote to a particularly unnerving and ongoing email exchange between soccer parents about the nutritional content of soccer snacks.
To say I don’t care about the snacks served after soccer games is an understatement. I don’t care if kids have snacks or not, what the nutritional content is or is not, whether a drink is included or not, how my kids feel about said snacks, or whether the snacks are creating bad habits.
I don’t care at all. I don’t give a flying fuck.
As I dig into an article about the mass shooting in Charleston, I feel a strong sense of perspective. I will survive this hangover. Soccer snacks are just snacks. Our country, the world, has much bigger problems. I imagine gathering the soccer parents on the sidelines, and delivering a lecture on institutional racism, shaming them for being worried about snacks when we have much bigger issues at hand. Maybe that would shake things up a bit.
Instead I sit far off from the group, read The New Yorker, and chug my son’s Gatorade while keeping one eye on the game. My hangover starts to lift.
I fall behind. Really, really behind. I am late finishing an issue and I start to panic. Another arrives and I’m not anywhere close to finishing the week before. I feel defeated. I chastise myself, “I can’t do this! It’s too much!”
I am stuck in a never ending article about Primo Levi. I read the same paragraph over and over again. I go out of town for the weekend and leave the unfinished New Yorker and the new, also unread, New Yorker at home. I feel wracked with guilt and a little bit dirty as I read Ok! and Star.
On my trip I talk about Picasso as a sculptor and Betheny Frankel as a marketing genius, and let’s just say my audience finds me incredibly interesting, or at least more interesting than they found me when I was ranting about how much I don’t care about soccer snacks.
Conceptual poetry? Really?
Screw you New Yorker.
You’re throwing a million word article about conceptual poetry at me? I’m pining for The Style Issue when everything was exciting and new. You’re already starting to wear me thin you pretentious, inaccessible, douche bag.
I’m sorry. I didn’t mean that.
You know how when you’re watching Game of Thrones and you’re not exactly sure that you’re following what’s going on, but you trust that if you just keep watching you’ll eventually figure it out. That’s how I feel reading The New Yorker. Disoriented. And hopeful at the same time.
I’ll be cruising along and then suddenly I’ve read six paragraphs about Jones. I have no idea who Jones is. Who the hell is Jones? I spend the next four to fourteen minutes back tracking trying to figure out when Jones came into the picture.
It’s taking me about five days to get through each issue. I am reading every spare moment that I have–over lunch, at various after school practices and events, in the kitchen making dinner, before bed. You finish one, another arrives. I’m starting to question my ability to commit to such an arrangement.
I’m not reading books. And with much irony, it’s the book reviews in The New Yorker that are KILLING me. They’re dropped like bombs just when you think you’re rounding the corner to the end of an issue. Ka-boom! Book reviews of books that must be longer than the actual books that are being reviewed. They go on for-ev-er. My brain aches for auto-pilot. I press on.
Some days I bribe myself–you can watch Ladies of London after, and only after, you finish this issue of The New Yorker. This article. This paragraph.
I tell myself that great progress only comes with great sacrifice.
I fall behind on all my Bravo shows.
I’m planning on dumping The New Yorker, but because I haven’t been to the library to pick up any new books, I find myself well into this week’s issue, and I’m loving it. This is how it is with The New Yorker.
You’ll be ready to end it, and then it swoops in with a bevy of timely, thoughtful, and somewhat accessible articles. I know it can’t last, but I can’t help myself. I keep reading.
I read about Chinatown banks, Balmain, Bernie Sanders, Reid Hoffman, you know, the founder of LinkedIn. This week’s issue is the perfect balance of culture and current events. For the first time during this impromptu tryst, I feel tapped into the big, amazing, happening world instead of left out on the sidelines.
But I’m struggling to take what I’m reading and turn it into something that I can use in everyday conversation. At a party, I float an aside about how many Kardashians will be Instagram-ing the Balmain collection at Target, and it sinks to the floor like a lead balloon. I try referencing a point about the intricacies of bank lending in Chinatown, but I can’t remember enough specifics and the only thing I elicit is the blankest of wide eyed stares.
This is my biggest challenge with The New Yorker. It’s great behind closed doors, one-on-one, but not someone you want to take to a party (It’s just ocurred to me how similar we are. Maybe that’s why our relationship is so hot and cold, we’re just too much alike.)
I’m starting to think that I picked the wrong publication. Maybe The New York Times would have been a better wingman. Or even Facebook.
One day I’m stuck in a particularly brutal small talk quagmire. I give up on The New Yorker and offer, “Did you see that video on Facebook where the baby bats get wrapped up like burritos?”
“Oh my God, yes!! That was so adorable.”
I made it to the library and picked up The Royal We. All New Yorker goals put on hold while I immerse myself in the fictionalized life of the royal family.
That’s about all I can say on that.
The New Yorker gathers dust. I go down, down an unscheduled, unplanned Pinterest rabbit hole. I am down there for hours, maybe days. While I’m down there, I find more interesting talking points in a few hours than I find in six weeks reading The New Yorker. I’m starting to see the cracks in the foundation of this this relationship.
On Pinterest, I find gems like The Edible Baby Jesus Craft (who doesn’t want to eat the Baby Jesus?!?), How to Make Shoelaces Out of T-Shirts (why wouldn’t you make your own shoelaces?!?), and my personal favorite, Feces & Diarrhea Stain Removal Guide (how do you get poop off of every surface?!?).
So much to talk about.
But after a week binging on social media, I feel buzzed but unfulfilled. I think of this week’s untouched New Yorker and am wracked with guilt and regret.
I even miss the book reviews. Just a little bit. And I never make my own shoelaces.
I am prepared to abandon this project and let it fade away like so many other things I intended to do like eating eight servings of vegetables daily or finding out why my pillows are so yellow and actually doing something about it.
I thought The New Yorker and I were done, but here I am, having friends over in a matter of minutes, and panicking because I’m not prepared. I have nothing to talk about.
Like a procrastinator cramming for an exam, I try to hoard facts, headlines, anything that can be used in a conversation when our company arrived. I am horrible at small talk. Beyond the weather and plans for upcoming travel, my mind goes completely blank except for the refrain…
Say something, say something, say something, say something, this is getting weird, say something.
I hurriedly flip through the recent issue looking for anything that might make good conversation fodder. But then I realize, The New Yorker doesn’t work like that. It’s not skim-able bite sized nuggets of information easily digested. It’s an eight course meal that needs time and attention and the upmost refinement and nurturing to fully experience all it has to offer.
Of course another perspective might be that The New Yorker is incredibly high maintenance. But my interest has been piqued, my attention reclaimed. That night, I crawl into bed with The New Yorker.
It’s not you, it’s me.
It was never going to last.
It’s for the best.
I think it’s for real this time.
I’m on the sidelines of a soccer game talking about an upcoming road trip that has me passing through North Carolina. The soccer dad I’m chatting with says, “Speaking of North Carolina, did you see that article in the food issue of The New Yorker about regional barbecue?”
And all I can say is, “Yes, yes I did.”
Because even though I did read it, I can’t acutally recall any of the complexities of western vs. eastern Carolina styles of barbecue. I can only remember feeling a dull ache in my stomach, also known as hunger.
But that moment when I was on the inside of the circle instead of peering in from the outside, did feel pretty glorious.
It’s time for a reality check.
My expectations of what The New Yorker is able to give me are completely unrealistic.
The New Yorker’s expectations that I will dedicate myself week after week are simply obnoxious.
We simply can’t carry on the way that we’ve been.
Where do we go from here?
When The New Yorker arrives in the mail, I do my best not to make eye contact before flinging it across the room to its spot on our dusty magazine rack.
I’m feeling guilty.
I joined a book club.
So, did it work?
I wanted to be more interesting.
But maybe the idea of being interesting is based too much on my own vanity and how the world sees me vs. how I see the world. Maybe instead of being interesting, what I really wanted was to feel my brain working in ways that I had shut down. Maybe what I really wanted was to feel interested.
Maybe I needed a weekly reminder that there is much more going on in the world than debates on soccer snacks, and whether I can read an entire issue every week is beside the point.
I have been resisting and fighting against the somewhat prevalent mindset of bubble-living where our whole world encompasses our immediate wants and needs, and more specifically our children’s wants and needs.
What I want, is for people, myself included, to look up past their smart phones and their calendars and their to-do lists and the next soccer practice and see that there is an entire world out there. And be interested.
I haven’t picked up The New Yorker in weeks, and I miss being dedicated to a project and reading amazing and intricate stories about the crazy world we live in.
But something else has been activated in me. I’m not longing any more. I’m not feeling boring. And I’m very interested in engaging with the world in a new and different way that continues the spirit of investigation and awareness even if I’m not reading The New Yorker every week.
Are you? Interested?
Calling all interested people! Come out, come out, wherever you are. The world needs you. I won’t make you read The New Yorker. Promise.