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This is the season when attention spans melt faster than a Nutty Buddy. When "reading a book" really means listening to the book-on-tape version on the way to the beach. When following the jump of a longer article, continuing a few pages deeper into the magazine, requires Herculean focus.Summer, especially those first ecstatic weeks of freedom, allows us time. "Out of school" is great, but now there's a whole other recreation agenda. As you proceed with your liquid diet and get into your horizontal state, magazines--a pile of magazines--have never looked better.

Double issues abound as editorial staff vacations, a dearth of story ideas, and shrinking ad pages drive periodical publishing. The New Yorker gives us one of their best issues of the year this month, their book-size "Summer Fiction" edition. This late June treasure carries the theme "The Family." There's no better beach (or porch, or kitchen) companion. And the writers deliver. The cover come-on's are, as usual, worth the cost of admission (Grace Paley, Richard Ford, Zadie Smith, Jeanette Winterson and Alice Munro), but it's the sharp, honest, literary (and often humorous) shorter "unadvertised" bonuses that have me always packing The New Yorker on the top of my pile.

Jonathan Letham's piece on watching Star Wars with his mother is a tender snapshot. Steve Martin's essay about his father's last days is touching and brutal. Several hilarious cartoons ("Finally, the alphabet is paying off") will be on the fridge for weeks. I even found myself circling must-see reminders in the ads. Maybe I need two copies of this issue.

The New Yorker assaulted last month's National Magazine Awards, winning three major trophies. Also feted was The Atlantic Monthly, taking a similar trio of hardware. These two magazines are the exception in the magazine biz these days: Owners pump in millions of dollars and don't equate success with ad revenue or circulation statistics, whose trends are rather gloomy.

So take a Rolling Stone to the beach too. Their latest issue is a double issue as well, with an Eminem review and a special feature on summer rock 'n' roll tours. But the future's not so bright for the magazine. Following a 25 percent drop in ad revenue over the last two years, publisher Jann Wenner has just installed Ed Needham as managing editor. Needham's claim to fame--and he is famous in publishing circles--is producing last year's fastest-growing magazine, FHM (For Him Magazine). He did it with trashy content, outrageous photos, and as David Carr in The New York Times puts it, "articles that are increasingly little more than captions on pictures." Words don't sell magazines these days; the laddies want pictorials.

Summer is more "your" time than any other time of the year. No grades, no one looking over your shoulder, and everyone else is half-asleep, too, from staying up late (or getting up too early for soccer). Curl up with some magazines, pour a pitcher of cold liquid in a glass, or over your head, and read a few words. EndBlock

  • The New Yorker's Summer Fiction issue trots out some big names.

More by John Valentine


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