A few years ago I was visiting my friend Roman. He asked me if I read The Believer. I told him I hadn’t heard of it. He silently reproved me, knowing that it would be right up my alley and being quite displeased that I wasn’t keeping up with the hip. I was very impressed with what I saw.
The Believer is put out through McSweeney’s. It seems to have filled in for the non-fiction niche that McSweeney’s slowly removed from its pages.
And since then, I have become a devoted follower. At some point (probably around issue ten or eleven) I decided that I was going to read every word in every issue. And so, (this was pre-kids) when I went to an ALA conference with Sarah, I spent a lot of the down time reading all of the back issues’ articles that I hadn’t read.
Since then, I have read every issue cover to cover. The thing that I love about the magazine (in addition to all of the stuff that I would normally like about it) is that every article is so well written that even if I don’t care about the subject, I know I’ll be interested for the duration of the piece. Whether or not I will go on to read anything else about the person or topic is neither here nor there, but when I’m in the moment I’m really hooked.
They’ve just published the Sixty-Third issue.
In the last year or so there have been articles about or interviews with: Nathaniel West (who I hadn’t heard of but who I hope to read a book or two by soon), Zadie Smith (she has an amazing lecture re-printed in the pages–I’ve been meaning to do a post just about this),perennial favorite David Foster Wallace, Daniel Handler, Rick Moody, Haruki Murakami, and of course, Paul Collins.
This most recent issue was particularly cool. An interview with Will Self, from fellow novelist and long-distance walker Geoff Nicholson. (Self revealed that he has been known to walk thirty-five miles in a day, just to walk). There was also a hugely fascinating interview with Christian Bök. I mentioned him before in regards to oulipo. Bök’s book Eunoia is a marvel of wordsmithing, and his latest project (in which he’s going to inject a brand new poem into a strand of DNA) goes beyond the fantastic into the inconceivable.
But the issues also come back to earth. For a time, although not recently, there was an article about an everyday object: a light, a caliper. Something detailed and insightful that makes you look at an ordinary object in a new way.
There’s an annual issue devoted to music (complete with CD), to film (complete with DVD) and art (in full color!). Each music issue tackles a theme or so. The last one was a fascinating mix of new bands and the music that influenced them. It was quite eclectic, and stuff that I hadn’t heard before. And the first couple of Film Issues had short pieces (which are now shown on Wholphin discs), but the most recent was devoted to works about Jean-Luc Godard.
There’s also one page book reviews. These are always cool reviews of books that you probably haven’t heard of (they’ve been doing a lot of poetry recently). In addition to the review, I enjoy the little box in the middle of the review which gives crucial information like: Print Run, Typeface, Author’s First Editor (in this case “his mother”), Number Of Times The Word “Drunk” Is Used, and a sample quote from the text.
Each issue also has a schematic that covers a two page spread. It’s always some kind of weird/fascinating/funny chart that shows different things in relation to other things. Oftentimes, it’s a series of lists of various literary merits. This one is called Paramedic Literature and features categories like “Books that talk directly about EMTs” and “Writers who were ambulance drivers in World War I” among others.
Until recently, Nick Hornby had a fantastic column. He recently retired from these pages (three books have collected these writings). His column was replaced by one from Griel Marcus. Marcus’ is a Top Ten cultural coolness list which runs the gamut of films and music and books and everything else. Imagine taking Entertainment Weekly’s Must List and making it smart, culturally diverse and a great read.
They’ve also been doing a Sedaritives Q&A. This started a couple of years ago with Amy Sedaris answering various Q&A. Since then, they have famous guest people substituting. Usually they are up-and-coming comedians, although in this issue Judd Apatow answers questions. Most of the time the answers are surreal nonsense (funny, but nonsense nonetheless), Judd’s was the funniest in a while in that he actually wonders if the questions are real or if The Believer is making fun of him.
The back half of the magazine is devoted to interviews. Mostly they are authors, but sometimes artists, musicians or scientists. And, sometimes the interviewer is another published author, musician et al. When these come up, you gain insight into both people. And the questions are always thought provoking.
The front pieces in the magazine are usually longish articles. They cover such a wide variety of topics it would be inconceivable to cover. But they are universally well-written and enjoyable.
There is also sometimes a first person narrative, offering insight into that person’s life and, ideally the human condition. The previous month’s by Mary Williams was utterly fascinating.
[DIGRESSION]: I submitted an article to The Believer to be included in this section. It was rejected. Sigh. But I don’t let it impact my fandom of the magazine. Even if I think that my piece was better than the Bret Easton Ellis stalker-fan in the current issue. In fact, I’ll just have to print mine here for my next post.
And lest I forget the visuals: All cover illustrations are by Charles Burns (amazing) and inner pictures are done by Tony Millionaire (plus an ever-changing lineup of peculiar pictures throughout).
And, of course, the annual reader’s fiction survey is a must-see. Keep up on all the novels you should have been reading!
Subscribe! It’s worth it.
Original mention in Periodicals Page:
The Believer. This periodical does have a spine, and its pretty heavy as well. This subject is literary, and it features lengthy interviews with writers by writers, and well as philosophers, artists and the like. There are also really long articles on things that you never heard of, and then you read a page or two and the author is so into what he or she is writing about that you MUST find out more. This month’s obsession is the Codex Seraphiniaus, a bizzaro text of words and pictures that were written by an Italian man and yet are not in Italian, they’re in some made up language. And, evidently the book is exceedingly hard to find. Great great stuff! This is affiliated with the McSweeney’s tribe of releases, if that helps. I was introduced to this one by my friend Roman. Thanks Roman.