Beware of newsstands this month: There's a battle of special magazine issues that is a real test of character.
You can buy the "Special Collectors' Edition" of Forbes ASAP magazine--a "Big Issue" that features essays by four dozen certified Big Thinkers debating a Big Idea. Or you can pick up the "Collector's issue" 30th-anniversary edition of Interview magazine, which is guaranteed 100 percent idea-free but has a cover photo of two supermodels wearing only pasties above the waist, plus pictures of actress Sarah Jessica Parker and choreographer Jamie King wandering around New York City flashing their lacy black underwear.
It's your choice: Feed your hungry mind or go for the cheap smut once again and hate yourself in the morning.
Forbes ASAP is a supplement to Forbes, the business magazine that has given the Republican Party its stiffest presidential contender since Calvin Coolidge. Usually, ASAP is sent only to Forbes subscribers but this Big Issue is also available on newsstands. Its topic is "The Great Convergence," which it defines as "the convergence of life and death, past and present, public and private, mind and body, religion and science, man and machine, the Internet and everything."
Whew! Pretty heavy! Forbes has gathered some intellectual hotshots to ponder this--Arthur C. Clarke, Stephen E. Ambrose, Bill Gates, Stanley Crouch, Kurt Vonnegut and Tom Wolfe, among many others. Wolfe's piece is buried on Page 212 but it serves as a good introduction. In his usual amusing and omniscient style, he traces the history of the idea of convergence from Jesuit paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, who coined the word, to media theorist Marshall McLuhan, to biologists Edward O. Wilson and Richard Dawkins.
Upon finishing Wolfe, you can flip a few pages and read essays by Wilson and Dawkins. Wilson claims that the line between biology and the humanities is vanishing because "scientists are solving the problems that philosophers have fought to keep eternal"--namely how the mind works. Meanwhile, Dawkins rips into the idea that religion and science are converging, which he calls "a shallow, empty, spin-doctored sham."
For a while, this play of big ideas is big fun, like a dinner party where every guest is brilliant and they've all had a glass of wine and they're effortlessly tossing out sparkling bits of wit and wisdom. But as you read a bit more, the parade of erudition gets a little old, like a dinner party that's gone on too long and the once-charming guests are getting drunk and telling stories they've told before or grumbling about their pet peeves.
For instance, Michael Moore, the leftist filmmaker, carps about how rock radio stations that don't play rap are racist. And Hilton Kramer, the right-wing art critic, grumbles about how pop culture is ruining Western civilization and how the "embattled minority" of learned folks (people like himself) will soon be "condemned to live more and more of its life 'underground,' so to speak, like the early Christians, propagating the gospel to the remaining members of a diminishing sect."
It's tough to be crankier than Kramer, but Wendy Shalit manages to pull it off. Shalit, the twenty-something author of "A Return to Modesty: Discovering the Lost Virtue," is working hard to win the title of World's Youngest Fogy. In her essay, she grumbles about the "the idolatry of the Internet" and compares "Internet Man" to "Communist Man." Then, descending into delightfully wacky crackpottery, she predicts a "new revolution" led by a vanguard of girls--"the new morality entrepreneurs"--who demand to take ballroom dancing lessons instead of "swaying half naked at rock concerts" because they understand the hard truth the baby boomers forgot: The serious work of the world "requires fully clothed pragmatism, not naked idealism."
Shalit's revolutionary ballroom-dancing teenyboppers will no doubt avoid Interview's "30th Anniversary Special"--and they won't be missing much.
Interview is, of course, the magazine founded by pop artist Andy Warhol as a companion piece to his soup can paintings, his celebrity silk screens and his movie of the Empire State Building just sort of standing there for eight hours. Warhol's idea was to put out a celebrity magazine without stories or even formal interviews--the kind with questions and answers and actual topics. Instead, he'd sit down with celebs and chat about this and that and then publish the raw transcript. Interview is a misnomer. He should have called it Chit-Chat.
Back in 1969, this idea seemed truly bizarre. Now, of course, it's the staple of countless magazines and TV shows. Once again, alas, Warhol has proved prophetic.
"I love fan magazines," Warhol says in a snippet of an interview reprinted in this issue. And that's basically what Interview is--a fan mag. Even the prose sounds like the cliches churned out by studio flacks in the '50s: "This lad's so talented, he could go all the way," Interview says about one young actor. And Queen Latifah, the rapper/actress, is described as "a force to be reckoned with."
But nobody reads Interview for the prose. They read it for the celebrity babbling and there is plenty in this issue. Dustin Hoffman chats with Sarah Jessica Parker and Ellen DeGeneres chats with Sean "Puffy" Combs. It's all quick, superficial and completely forgettable.
But the pictures are memorable--Combs crouching over a nude woman covered in gold paint, Parker exposing her black bra and panties to a bunch of jaded New Yorkers on the subway.
Reading these two special issues together, you can't help but wonder: What would happen if there was a convergence between Forbes ASAP and Interview?
Well, you'd get a magazine with pictures of Hilton Kramer riding the subway wearing nothing but underwear embossed with quotes from Wendy Shalit.