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To Truly Understand the Past, Pick Up an Old Magazine

The New York Times – “Find a print issue, preferably more than 20 years old, and read it cover to cover. You’ll find the old days stranger than you remember. How alien are the ways we once described the world; how swiftly we freeze the past into its mere idea, a cartoon of this or that distant year or decade. I’m writing a book about the singer Kate Bush, and another about my education, projects that require much paging through magazines from the 1980s. In the London-based style monthly The Face, I find a cover story on “Electro: the beat that won’t be beaten.” It’s May 1984, the first wave of hip-hop is long past and this summer belongs to the Roland drum machine and the imported sounds of New York clubs. I turned 15 that month, and remember this musical cusp very well. What surprises me now in the pages of The Face: There are just the tiniest hints of the British miners’ strike and the swelling unemployment that are convulsing the country politically. And not a single mention yet of AIDS; in a Wrangler ad, a model’s speech bubble announces, oblivious: “I’m Positive.” In these magazine pages, it both is and is not the 1984 of my memory….Old magazines are cheap time machines, archaeologies of collective desire. Find a print issue, specialist or popular, preferably more than 20 years old (though 10 may do the trick), and read it from cover to cover. You will execute no deep dive, vanish down no rabbit hole; your reading is instead a lateral slice through a culture, class or milieu. A few years ago, while writing a book about great sentences, I went looking for photo captions that Joan Didion composed in the 1960s during her time at Vogue. I found these perfectly formed, uncredited fragments, but also Didion writing about a new museum in Mexico City — “One comes away remembering certain small things, haunted by oddities” — and other high-toned pieces: Hardwick reviewing movies, articles on Alberto Giacometti and Günter Grass. There were fashion photographs by Gordon Parks and William Klein. I confirmed what I suspected about the aesthetic sophistication of midcentury American magazines and their readers…”

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