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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
December 3, 2001

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.

Magazines -- Better than the Internet

CD-ROMs and the internet may have killed encyclopedias, but magazines, I'm glad to say, seem to be holding their own.

After all, you can't get on the internet when you're standing in line, or waiting to meet somebody, or lying on your back in bed. And unless your house is hopelessly overcomputerized, you can't yet check the internet while using the john.

In the best magazines you get a standard of writing and fact-checking that few places on the internet even approach.

And since magazine subscriptions make a great gift, I thought Christmas was a good time for me to review my favorites, in case one of them might appeal to you, either for yourself or someone else.

Every year we give gift subscriptions to two magazines: "Commentary" and "American Heritage." These are also the two magazines which I read word for word, cover to cover, as soon as they arrive.

"American Heritage" is one of the most enjoyable magazines I've seen. Without any political agenda I've been able to detect, "AH" constantly refreshes my knowledge of recent and distant American events. Some of the best contemporary historians write for them.

"Commentary" is a serious, reliable, and powerfully written journal of conservative thought. Because it's published by the American Jewish Committee, it deals heavily with Jewish and Middle Eastern affairs, which I find fascinating in their own right.

"Commentary" is also a thoroughly reliable source of conservative thought. No wacko conspiracy theories, no irresponsible accusations. Everything is documented, and if there are any questions about an article, you can bet the author will be raked over the coals in the next month's letters column.

In fact, that's one of the marks of a great magazine -- the letters column is full of brilliant, insightful, provocative discussion.

Which is one of the reasons that I subscribe to "Atlantic Monthly" and "Harper's," despite their liberal bent. "Atlantic Monthly" has for years offered superb articles by leading writers, and their letters column shows that top people in government and the arts read the magazine regularly.

"Atlantic" is also brave enough to run a few pieces that are definitely not politically correct -- I remember, a few years ago, their bravely titled "Dan Quayle Was Right." They really do try for balance.

"Harper's" doesn't. Editor Lewis Lapham's tirades are studies in pseudointellectual self-absorption, and they are often as wacko on the left as, say, "National Review" is on the right. But it is one of the most interestingly designed magazines and even if many of the pieces are calculated to infuriate me, they contain information I have to know, if only to be able to argue against them.

"New Yorker" is also a source of amazingly long and reliable articles on vital concerns in American life. Despite the name and the deep coverage of New York City issues, it is truly a national magazine. With many important news stories I find that I already know all the key issues because they showed up months or even years earlier in in-depth articles in "New Yorker." Of course, they were also the magazine that ran the most insane and/or irresponsible statements about the so-called "stolen" election of 2000. What a bunch of whiners. But they do run the best one-panel cartoons in the world, period.

"American Enterprise" is another responsible conservative source. As you can guess from the name, they are absolutely committed to the "free market," a fictional concept that is invariably used to justify the depredations of the rich against the poor -- so-called free-marketeers would wet their pants if they ever faced a truly free market that wasn't rigged in their favor. But "American Enterprise" also runs bold but well-researched articles that counteract the constant liberal slant of the media.

"Wilson Quarterly" is often more ponderous than any of these others, but takes the time to give great depth on many important themes and issues. Their synopses of articles in other journals is invaluable.

"Games Magazine" is a matter of obsession at our house. My wife and I solve puzzles, not quite together, but in alternating sessions as each "Games" occupies its place of honor on the edge of the bathtub.

"Movieline" is the liveliest, most gung-ho, and all-around best of the movie magazines. I also take "Premiere" and "Entertainment Weekly," and it's been amusing to watch them alter their content and format in order to imitate "Movieline's" gossipy, spiteful, funny format. (Best thing about "Entertainment Weekly": Jim Mullen's Hot Sheet.)

On environmentalism, "Scientific American" is absolutely doctrinaire and unreliable. But on every other count, they present the best science writing around, and by reading every issue I stay fairly well abreast of real science rather than the nonsense that gets reported on TV and in newspapers.

I subscribe to "PC Magazine" for John Dvorak's column and to keep up on Microsoft's plans to take over my computer and ruin my life.

And the journal-size monthly "Poetry" is the best source for good poetry that is actually meant to be read by volunteers.


This year's Greensboro Oratorio performance of Handel's "Messiah" was one of the best I've attended. Especially noteworthy was the tenor soloist Richard Heard, who is on the faculty at Wake Forest University. Not only did his voice have astonishing power, with such range that none of the notes ever sounded like he was straining for them, but also he infused the words with such feeling that they often felt to me as if I were hearing them for the first time. His rendition of "Thou Shalt Break Them" was the best I've heard, live or recorded.

The other soloists -- Alexa Jackson Schlimmer, who chairs the High Point University music department; Mary Gayle Greene, who teaches voice at App State; and William Adams of Elon University -- sang their parts movingly and well (though I confess that it seemed to me some of the women in the soprano section were looking at the heroically handsome Adams with nonmusical longing). The instrumentalists were also first rate, and Jay Lambeth conducted with energy and understanding.

Backstage after the performance I overheard one fellow saying, "And I heard only three mistakes in the whole thing!" Well, apparently he wasn't listening closely -- there were dozens of mistakes. A few places where sections of the choir didn't do the complicated runs quite up to tempo, and lagged behind the orchestra; a few notes from instrumentalists that wavered; a reed instrument that blurted out into the silence after a cutoff.

The glory of live performance is that the performers are doing it without a net. No editing. No retakes. No computer enhancement. The flaws show. (And if you couldn't hear the errors yourself, there was a violist who responded to most of them with an elfin smile.)

The payoff is in that very immediacy. Handel's music came to life in the moment, produced by a hundred people working together in our presence. Nothing you can play on your stereo at home can compare to it. I loved it all, and honor the achievement of bringing this music, once again, to new and glorious life.

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