In the 1920s, according to the sign outside the heavy door, DeWitt Wallace spent countless hours in the high-ceilinged sanctum within, reading and condensing magazine articles. This was how he filled Reader’s Digest, the unorthodox little magazine he and his wife, Lila, had launched in 1922, their only child. At first, they didn’t bother with advertising or writers or illustrators. It was all about circulation, which by 1946 reached about eight million. Reader’s Digest became the most widely read magazine in the world.
Last week, we came to this Periodical Room of the main New York Public Library building on 5th Avenue. It’s an awesome space, although there were no magazines in sight. Instead, almost every wooden chair lined up on both sides of long tables was occupied by someone working on a MacBook. Students in this class sized up the place in a minute, and decided to leave the room and the building for free time in the city. With iPhones in hand, they all had better things to do than waste time in this silent tomb of twentieth century print culture.
But I took the road less traveled by. I asked at the window for copies of some magazines from 1967. Sorry, the man said, we keep only recent issues here. He sent me walking down a long hallway to the room with old periodicals. I spent nearly two hours on some slow-moving research into Look magazine and The Saturday Evening Post.
Then I went back to the DeWitt Wallace Periodical Room to contemplate, once more, what David Sumner’s book calls The Magazine Century. The majestic room has thirteen murals of the great magazine publishing houses in Manhattan, part of the room’s restoration in 1983 underwritten by DeWitt Wallace legacy funds.
These were grand buildings, Herald Square, the Time-Life Building, the Hearst Building. Some are still around, re-purposed. Time Inc. has moved downtown. The Art Deco Hearst Building has become the base of a dazzling 44-floor glass tower clad in diamond-shaped facets. We would hear from the head of magazine marketing in that building the next day, and the students would be given good news about Hearst’s peak profits last year, from using multiple platforms nimbly and targeting native advertising.
Magazines, it seems, will survive. But something troubles me about how sluggish I felt trying to dig into the great magazines of the past. I don’t blame my students for getting out of the New York Public Library as fast as they could. It’s a beautiful building, but in their world it’s a dead tomb of dead books and magazines that aren’t even out in the open. As the man at Hearst would tell us, with an iPhone you don’t want advertising or irrelevant content. You want what you want, when you want it. How many “snap”? he asked, meaning Snapchat. All 14 raised their hands. And how many regularly read magazines? A tentative pause, and only about half the hands went up. And this is a course called “The Magazine: Past, Present and Future.”