I subscribe to a certain literary journal, which I’ll call the London Review of Books. Subscribe to it, but almost never read it. Who has time to do that, academics and book publishers apart?
Every year, I fail to cancel my direct debit, either through lazy inattention or because of a vague resolution to read it more, kidding myself that somehow I’ll find a newly crafted pocket of time in which to be exposed to the thoughts of Andrew O’Hagan or Ross McKibbin. I used to think I kept the subscription running so that I could give friends gift subscriptions, but since those started to cost money I’ve stopped giving them. And I expect most of the lucky recipients are probably stuck on the same unreading trudge as me by now, shamed by unopened polybag after unopened fortnightly polybag. These horrible little bags add to the dissatisfaction of the whole subscriber experience for two reasons: they make it clear to visitors that you are not reading your LRBs; and worse, they make the magazines difficult to stack into high piles, which is of course the main point of having them if you want to impress people, which you probably do or probably did if you’re the kind of person that subscribes to the LRB.
I’ve been a subscriber to one thing or another more or less constantly since I took The Beano as a child. At times, I’ve subscribed to more than one thing at once, which even as a student with nothing much to do proved overly ambitious.
It’s always been the same. I’m sure I read all of The Beano when I first got it, including the crap bits like Ivy the Terrible and Lord Snooty. Then, after a while, I skipped to Roger the Dodger, perhaps reading Dennis the Menace and Billy Whizz as well. Eventually, I only really bothered with the occasional stick of bubble gum taped to the front of the comic .
I subscribed to the New Musical Express for much longer, and indeed read it for longer too. I still hang on to issues that I think might be valuable one day (Kurt Cobain, Richey Edwards, Jeff Buckley, etc.), but whenever I check on eBay, they’re not worth very much. It was inevitable that I’d stop reading it. The writers I liked grew up and left for the nationals, while I started listening to music that wasn’t made by miserable young men – or at least, wasn’t contingent on the miserableness of the young men who made it.
For some of that time, I also bought Shoot or sometimes Match, learning extraordinary things about odd footballers. I never subscribed to either, but I did once see a photo gallery containing the lead up to, execution and aftermath of Des Walker’s only goal in favour of his own team in professional football. It was against Luton Town for Nottingham Forest, and it was beautiful.
For a while, around the turn of the millennium, I went subscription mad, taking Private Eye, The Economist and the New Yorker at roughly the same time, if not all at once. In hindsight, none of those were especially smart decisions. The New Yorker was great, easily the best magazine that I’ve ever read, but simply overwhelming. Too many issues, too much writing, too much of it good, too intimidating. The Economist I bought because it sounded like the sort of thing I should be reading. It was and is, if we think that we ‘should’ try to improve ourselves through the taking in of mere information. In a sense, it is useful to know about the political situation in Kazakhstan and its potential effect on Western energy security (not good by democratic standards and unlikely to be significant, if memory serves), but in several other senses, it’s not useful at all.
Private Eye was much easier to feel good about reading, and not only because it is an easy read. It’s small in outlook, happily parochial, excellent when serious and solid when not. I suspect it’s also the only one of the three you can keep in your toilet without looking like a prick, or at least, it’s the one you can keep in your toilet which will make you look like less of a prick than either of the others. Keeping magazines in your toilet is, after all, a pretty prickish thing to do. Besides, it’s hard to imagine anyone could spend enough time at their morning evacuations to get through a long New Yorker feature.
Of course if reading’s what you want – and I do, sometimes – then you can get that online, subscribed to or otherwise. Even better, if you read something online about Des Walker’s only goal for the right team in his entire professional football career, and how beautiful it was, you can watch it yourself at the click of a button, rather than taking the word of a grown-up, former football-obsessed Nottingham Forest fan.
But reading’s no reason to be a subscriber, online or especially in print, unless you have a professional need to read the thing in question. Neither is cost – in time, unread copies of subscribed-to magazines will inevitably outweigh the money purportedly saved through buying a subscription. The same holds true for newspapers, though newspaper subscriptions are more defensible, because newspapers are more routine. Once you’re in, you’re in.
No, the only real reason to subscribe to a magazine, actually to give money in anticipation of as-yet-unwritten issues, is to be part of a club. And the only way to demonstrate membership of that club is to tell people about your subscription: to stack piles of magazines in your toilet and hope people notice or to give free subscriptions to your friends or write pieces about the things you subscribe to. It’s a good club to belong to: one whose members can think of themselves as people of leisure – they’re people with time to consider things like the world, people with the luxury of interests. Serious people, in short (or people who don’t have children, to put it another way). To subscribe is to be a person of discernment, a member of an imagined community of precisely shared sensibilities, and further, a person who receives good things in the post. That’s a very nice thing to be.