Monday, May 17, 2010

The Finest Things

One of my longtime staples of reading has undergone a signficant design change. Joseph Bottum on redesigning First Things:

And so we have now undertaken the redesign that begins with this issue. In the public discussions of America, First Things works for several things. The fight, for example, with those who want to strip the world of its religious clothing and create the naked public square. The long struggle against the murderousness of abortion. The attempt to sort out the good of modern democracy and science from the horrors that have emerged through what we insist are wrong turns taken in the name of modernity. And, most of all, the effort to be physicians to this Iron Age in which we live--the effort to reinvest the world with the richness, thickness, and freshness that is found only in truly God-haunted nations and societies.

But, as a magazine, First Things also works to preserve the high culture of intellectual journals: a culture that is fading under pressure from the Internet, from the weak American financial situation, and, not to mince words, from the absurd decline of print standards in this country.

Many magazines have given up on poetry--and so we print poems. Many magazines have given up on the long-form reporting that was once the glory of American journalism--and so we want to showcase that kind of story. Many magazines have given up on intellectual essays--and so we continue to present them, as we have always done, to our readers. For that matter, many magazines have given up on superior and intellectually challenging crossword puzzles--and so (over some internal objections, I should note) I demanded that we pick up, as well, that fallen standard of journalism.

Most of all, American magazines these days seem to have given up on elegance--and so we decided to demand art covers, and interior photographs, and fine text layout.

In other words, First Things defiantly refuses to accept the diminished condition of American print today. The object in your hands must be a pleasure to hold and read--or what good is a printed journal, with the cacophony of the Web sounding all around us?

Amen. Reading is about more than simply text on a page. The aesthetic side is important as well. How a book or magazine looks and feels still matters. Unfortunately, as Bottum notes, it seems that few publishers understand this or are committed to the same aesthetic quality they once were.

My copy of the new look First Things arrived in the mail on Saturday. While I haven't had a chance to paw through most of it yet, I do love the design of the cover and its feel.

Crossword puzzles and poetry aren't the reasons that I subscribe to First Things. It's the essays. And while reading the essays in the newly designed format won't be different from reading them in the old, I will find the overall experience a bit more enjoyable because of this change. What's inside is still what's most important, but having the content come wrapped in a visually pleasing package makes it even better. Well done.