Monday, July 11, 2016

Magazine Monday: Review of Harper’s Magazine

by Steven D. Mathews, Library Assistant

Harper’s Magazine (est. 1850, New York) is a monthly periodical chock-full of facts, fictions, and opinions of current events, new books and media, and many other corners of American life and culture. The cover of each issue dons an inspired image from one of the issue’s featured long-form pieces on top of an austere white background with black text. The publishers of Harper’s claim that the magazine is “the oldest [active] general-interest monthly in America.” You can read about their long history on their website (; the following review will explore the content of the past four issues (April to July 2016) and consider who Harper’s intends to reach.

Spanning an average of 100 pages in length, each issue begins and ends in roughly the same manner. Upon opening Harper’s, you will find the following parade of sections: letters to the editor; a provocative and brief “Easy Chair” piece—ranging from fact-checked political opinion to “narrative” journalism on quite specific topics; the trademarked “Harper’s Index,” which is a full-page series of facts listed line-by-line; and a curious collection of short “Readings” that feature an international pool of previously published and unpublished excerpts of (among other things) poetry, dialogue, political solicitations, oral testimony, fiction, and ancient works.

Just beyond page twenty, you will find the cover story for each issue couched as, for example, “Report,” “Folio,” or “Essay.” Since April 2016, the most recent cover stories have touched on the following areas: the war against drugs and the push to “Legalize it All”; the complex issues surrounding crowdsourcing and terminal childhood illness in “Hashtag Prescription”; the right to privacy vis-a-vis the government and technology in “Unhackable”; and a documentary of a trip around Israel with hundreds of Christian Zionists in “My Holy Land Vacation.”

Each issue of Harper’s begins to close around page seventy with a multi-page excerpt of new fiction, four reviews of upcoming books and television, a crossword puzzle, and a bewildering string of somewhat disconnected single-sentence research conclusions in “Findings.” Perhaps the most amusing part of each issue, this latter section of the magazine leaves the reader with a bifurcated feeling of disbelief and, following a period of convulsing, “probably.”

In between the feature story and denouement, you will find a variety of other types of writing and visuals. For example, a “photo essay” on the English Premier League shows packed confetti-raining stadiums, tension-filled expressions on fans, and footballers embracing. “Memoir” sections include personal reflections, such as “My Perfect Season” in little league or a story about a father in “The Old Man.” “Portfolio” articles share artwork or photography. Other sections include: “Letters from” specific places, such as Baltimore, Washington D.C., and France; a “Revision” piece by Ralph Nader on the positives of bringing lawsuits; and “From the Archives.”

Compared to The Atlantic, a monthly rival of the same age,  Harper’s definitely offers more words and variety (in both topic and genre) to the “general-interest” reader. However, it is also for the invested and experienced reader who is attracted to all kinds of storytelling. If you listen to a lot of narrative podcasts on NPR or iTunes, for instance, then these are the magazines for you. Further, if you enjoy reading The New Yorker—which produces slightly less content on a weekly basis—or even the four big articles in each issue of The Atlantic, then there is something for you in Harper’s. Unlike The New Yorker, though, the pages of Harper’s are not sprinkled with cartoons, but photographs, paintings, watercolors, drawings, and similar genres of art; this is why I feel it portrays a more refined or traditional image on the surface compared to glossy competitors.

You can find all three of these publications, and several months of back issues, at the Yocum Library. However, because of the wide-range of topics in every issue, these types of national publications are not meant to be read cover-to-cover. For me, they exist primarily to spark national discussion, deepen your personal curiosity, broaden your global perspective, enhance your vocabulary and writing, and inspire your next passion. It’s good to check in with these magazines periodically as they represent a pinnacle for aspiring authors.

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