We are all getting terribly practiced at delivering farewell speeches to departing magazines. The weekly Life. Look. Saturday Evening Post. Just last year, New Times. And now, after 130 years, Harper's.
By now everybody has become skilled at using the sad event as an occasion for a favorite set piece. Since these are mostly writers, speaking from the heart -- and sometimes the pocketbook -- about the vanishing of one of their forums, the memorializing often turns into a head-wagging sermon on the wicked triumph of television over print. Thus the end of Harper's has been interpreted as a symptom of "galloping illiteracy." Harper's last editor, Lewis Lapham, drew this moral: In a country of 200-million people, maybe there are only 200,000 readers who are willing to spend four or five hours a month enjoying a magazine.
But this acceptance of the Age of McLuhan seems a little too resigned. There are, in fact, an awful lot of magazines still around, as the index of the Literary Market Place proves, and there are not all about jogging or gossip or astrology or diets, though quite a few are.
The Literary Market Place lists 97 magazines under the heading of "Education, " and 45 under the classification of "Business and Finance." Where, then, does the dwindling occur? Look to the magazines in what ought to be the most popular of categories -- "General." There are just 41 of them -- make that 40, now that Harper's is gone -- and to achieve this number a few rather special titles have been included, such as Rotarian, Book Digest, Wilson Quarterly, and Coevolution Quarterly.
At this rate, the number of magazines dealing in "Communications and Media" -- 37 -- may catch up with the "General" magazines merely trying to communicate.
If the disappearance of a magazine like Harper's cannot quite be read as the "death of reading," as one eulogist warned, what does it signify? "General" magazines like harper's like the Atlantic, like the New Republic and the Nation have been described by the phrase "journals of opinion." Perhaps the real trouble is that opinion, in the traditional sense, has become obsolete.
Opinion used to be the destination one arrived at after 3,000 to 5,000 well-balanced words. One finely argued, one closely rebutted, one scrupulously examined all alternatives. And then, and only then did one insist, modestly, on a single point of view. These exercises in reason were properly known as essays -- attempts. Fair-minded and mannerly to a fault, they combined scholarship and wit and gentle suasion to make their point, delivering that ever-so-judicious opinion at last with a courtly bow. These essayists had their ancestors -- Bacon, Montaigne, Addision, and Lamb -- and they did their very best to live up to the family reputation.
But what does the word opinion mean to us now? It would not be fair-minded, in the temper of Harper's and the rest, to generalize too harshly. But sometimes it seems as if an opinion these days is more like the thumbs up or the thumbs down of a Roman circus crowd, delivering its verdict on a gladiator. When people say "opinion," they often mean "feeling" -- as in "I like," "I don't like," with the emphasis on "I." Ask people "Why?" and they'll give you their authobiography, which may or may not explain why they like and dislike what they do but will certainly convince you that they feel -- strongly.
Instead of 3,000 to 5,000 words you are likelier to get slogans that can fit onto a placard -- in block letters.
You will often hear shrillness. Anger has tended to replace reason as the validation stamping a given opinion.
What we have little time for is not so much words as thoughts -- the cottage industry of handcrafted ideas.
Sooner or later the magazine-mourners get around to saying of a publication like Harper's: "A civilized voice has been silenced." The cliche comes close to snobbish self-parody. And yet at a time when opinion is apt to mean a scream of rage or a computer printout, we long for something not so instant, something not so flat-out. Something like -- well, a civilized voice.
Ave atque vale.m Hail and farewell, Harper's, as the old civilized voices used to say.