Harper’s Considered Annoying

July 17th, 2004  |  Published in Uncategorized

So last year I got a subscription to Harper’s from a school child. I think I paid a little extra for the privilege of helping out a school, but that’s o.k. I had to sell sausages and special “smokey flavored spreadable cheese” in a crock for fundraisers, and that stuff was both a pain to deliver and nasty. Most people in my neighborhood probably scooped out the cheese and kept the “quaint decorative crock.”

My patience with Harper’s comes and goes, so it was a risky subscription, but I thought of the children and picked it because it was fairly cheap and because my Salon Premium subscription has already helped me remember why I hate the national weeklies courtesy of the free subscription to US News and World Report (with resident troll John Leo). Plus I was pretty entertained when Lewis Lapham appeared on the NBC morning talk show from his office, cigarette smoldering in his hand, and told Ralph Nader that he’d smoke in the privacy of his office if he wanted because it wasn’t bothering anybody else. Smoking has a long, honored tradition among newsroom types. I learned at the feet of a man who started phone conversations with a sharp inhale. So Harper’s had the “Lewis Lapham: Celebrity Dick” thing going for it. Also, I guess, having been burned by subscription scams in the past, I wasn’t even sure I’d see a single issue.

All was well. Nice to walk past the latest issue on the newsstand and think “that’ll be headed to my door no later than tomorrow… no need to so much as lift a finger to pull it down from the shelf!”

Then I got my first “Your subscription is about to expire mail,” which was “signed” by Lewis Lapham himself. It had a few obligatory stroke-off sentences about me as a Harper’s reader (magazines are the worst for this sort of reader flattery, and it makes me a little unhappy that of all the traditions in the print mag world Salon has to choose from, it sticks to the “your subscription to Salon shows you to meh meh meh mehhity-fucking meh”) before launching into the weirdest sidewinder curve I’ve ever gotten as a pitch:

“Lewis,” or the intern down in circulation masquerading as him, told me that some people actually believe that magazines ask people to re-up early, then pocket the proceeds from the overlap! I was to understand that he was just writing to let me know it was time to resubscribe, and that, believe him, it wasn’t about bilking me out of an extra issue or two worth of revenue, so please put that idea aside and just re-up.

I toyed with the idea of scanning the letter and putting it up as a PDF, just to have something to build into a screed about Harper’s mining the most discernible fault of its readership, which would have to be an ungodly powerful conviction that they are so much smarter than everybody else. Lewis’ proxies down in circulation clearly believe they can make their readers buy things simply by implying that not buying would be the earmark of a ignorant rubes who concoct foolish magazine subscription boondoogles because they’re too dirt stupid to realize Lewis has better things to do with his time, and too miserly to be willing to lose a few cents anyhow.

My scanner, however, wasn’t attached to the computer at the time, and I am very lazy. So I let that opportunity go. Plus you never know if Lewis himself wouldn’t, perhaps, bestir himself to turn up in comments and write a custom umpty-fifty page essay condemning me. He did, after all, authorize a graphic file of his signature to be laser printed on to the letter the circulation intern wrote for him. He’s clearly concerned that his message get out.

Then Harper’s stopped coming, because the letter ultimately pissed me off. A simple “Hey, you’re running out in a month” would have probably gone ignored, too, because I can barely remember to zip my fly most mornings, but it wouldn’t have made me put aside my indifference to timely action in favor of aborted plans to complain bitterly about the wasted brainpower of inventing a conspiracy that I’d know better than to believe so the circulation clerk could establish his/her belief in my non-rubeness.

So we’ve been a month or so without a new issue, and I’ve thought about “Lewis'” letter a few times since then, wondering what pile of papers it’s in, and whether I should go crawling back. Like at least one other person I know, something about having a long-time magazine subscription makes me feel like I’ve anchored myself somehow.

I’ve tried it with ReadyMade (god… make that thing go away soon… it’s like BoingBoing for homeowners only it takes up actual physical space under my coffee table, and always seems to spawn extra issues just when I think I’ve recycled the last of them) and Whole Earth Review (which was once cool, disappeared, and came back bearing the same name but resembled that story in the latter part of the Chronicles of Narnia where the monkey dresses a donkey in a lion skin and parades around yelling ‘Look everybody, Aslan!’)

Web subscriptions don’t work, either, because they lack any real physical substance. I guess you can recreate the effect of a stack of “New Yorkers” by carefully mailing links to Salon stories to your friends so often that it sort of implies that you don’t care about the annoying Web ad non-subscribers have to endure, but I’m on record as being against using e-mail to communicate third party ideas, and that limits me to just mentioning that I read Salon a lot, and who do I ever talk to in person?

I was ready to commit to Harper’s, so their attempt to trick me with their whole “manufacture a scam then tell all the readers they’re too smart to believe the same dumb things as the penny-pinching red state huckleberries” scam, and that hurt. They misjudged me: I’m a part of the demographic that thinks it’s smarter than everyone else because it’s too smart to fall for appeals to how smart it is, and “Lewis” completely missed that.

Today, I got a poignant reminder of the situation in the form of a guilt issue. They cut me off for a few weeks, let me hang, and now they’ve sent me a freebie, meant to stir me into action. Looking at the pile of “meh” mail crammed into the mail holder I installed over our mail slot, I can see a plaintive little reup envelope from Harper’s, far too skinny to contain another phony-baloney letter from Lewis or his proxies. Just a simple reminder. In a week or two, they’ll send another one, maybe with an actual guilt letter. I’ve been here with Utne, Newsweek, Linux Journal, The Nation, and a few others, and I can tell the WIRED subscription I got for free is about to try that even though I’ve had 12 forgettable issues to remind me that you don’t have to see the little ponytail to know it’s there.

I think b!X and Gruber are gonna have to be it. I’ll get a t-shirt out of Gruber, and a better sense of what the hell’s up with Portland out of b!X. Neither will stack up under my coffee table (though b!X is hawking printed editions), but unless b!X breaks his fairly taciturn approach to fund-raising or Gruber fails to break out of his “post-fundraiser inability to post” slump in the next month or two, they seem like good values, and I’d rather pay for them than Lewis Lapham’s half-wit intern.

Anyone else want to offer candidates for subscription dollars?

Comments are closed.

© Michael Hall, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States license.