Those wild, wacky folks who put out magazines have found a new place to display their creativity. I'm not talking about the Web. I'm talking about the spine.

The spine is the squared-off binding of magazines bound by glue. (Mags bound with staples are, alas, spineless.) The spine presents a very long, very thin strip of blank space that has recently become a place where the hipper magazine editors exhibit their goofy wit. In fact, for some mags--Details and Jane come to mind--the spine is more clever than anything inside the average issue.

In the old days, editors didn't pay much attention to their spines. They'd simply use it to print the name of the magazine and date of the issue. Some mags--operating under the delusion that readers stored back issues on bookshelves--would run a list of the articles that appeared inside. Others printed their official slogan: On the Ladies' Home Journal, "Never Underestimate the Power of a Woman." On Cosmopolitan, "Fun, Fearless Female." On Maxim, "The Best Thing to Happen to Men Since Women."

But that got boring, so editors started fooling around with their spines. I first noticed this trend last summer while perusing the August issue of the wonderfully sophomoric computer-game magazine PC Accelerator. On the cover was a typical come-on line: "Better Than Sex? 69 Hot New Games." And on the spine, printed in tiny type, was: "The 69 games inside are pretty damned good but to answer the question--no, they aren't better than sex."

I laughed out loud. After that, I started paying closer attention to spines, and I discovered some very strange stuff. On the spine of the October issue of Jane, a magazine for twenty-something women, was this simple declarative sentence: "Mustard doesn't sell." Huh? What? The magazine contained no story on any downturns in the condiment market. Apparently, the editors were simply indulging their dadaistic sense of humor. And they've kept it up. The December spine bragged that the mag was "Nearly Millennium Free." And the spine of Jane's current issue contains just one word--"Moo."

At the same time, Details, a magazine for twenty-something men, was using its spine as a forum for an impish wit. Last August's spine carried a parody of a magazine motto: "For Men Who Like Magazines That Start With the Letter D." November's spine parodied warning labels: "Causes Cancer in Only 3.4 Percent of Lab Rats!" December's spine went on the attack: "Because the New Yorker Has, Like, Way Too Many Words." And the January issue was pure surrealism: "Hey You Kids! Get Off My Property! Dagnabbit!"

Meanwhile, PC Accelerator keeps exhibiting its ability to run the longest, and perhaps weirdest, spine lines around. January's spine reads: "Warning! This magazine isn't intended for people without a sense of humor, dumb people or anyone who frequently breaks their hip."

Okay, it's not the most sophisticated humor in the world, but it's kind of fun. And now, I'm hooked. At newsstands, I find myself picking up magazines, checking the spines. If they're the old-fashioned, boring kind, I think, Hey, what's wrong with you guys? Do something funny!

I figure that this trend will continue. More magazines will get into the spine line competition and more readers will start scoping out the spines. Soon, the whole thing will get so popular that spines will become too important for whimsy: The mags will start selling ads there and then the game will be over.

Oxford John

Meanwhile, there are also some interesting things going on inside magazines:

The Oxford American, the estimable Mississippi-based magazine of Southern culture, has begun serializing a new novel by John Grisham, the mega-best-selling author of legal thrillers--who also happens to be the magazine's publisher and financial angel. The novel, "A Painted House," will not be published in book form, so if you simply must read everything Grisham writes, you'll have to buy the next six issues of the mag. The novel is set in the cotton fields of Arkansas in 1952, and it contains not a single lawyer--at least not in the first part. The characters are the members of a poor farm family and the even-poorer folks they hire to help pick the cotton crop. The story is unfolding a tad slowly for my taste, but it's sure teaching me a lot about raising cotton.

Modern-Day Slave

This week's New Yorker tells the amazing story of Moctar Teyeb, a runaway slave living in, of all places, the Bronx. Teyeb, 40, was born into slavery in the West African nation of Mauritania, where his tasks included taking his master's children to school by camel. When he lingered to listen to the lessons through a school window, he was beaten. At 19, he escaped and fled to Ivory Coast. "There, for the first time, at age 22," he says, "I sat in a classroom and was allowed to look at a teacher." Now Teyeb stocks shelves in New York grocery stores, studies at Bronx Community College and speaks out for the freedom of the rest of Mauritania's slaves, who number somewhere between 90,000 and 300,000. He is an incredible man and this is an inspiring story.

Cutting to the Bone

Meat & Poultry is that rare trade magazine that's willing to criticize the industry it covers. In "The Jungle Revisited," senior editor Keith Nunes compared working conditions in today's meatpacking plants with those described by Upton Sinclair in his famous 1906 expose, "The Jungle." Despite advances in technology, not much has changed, Nunes concluded: "Meatpacking still ranks as one of the most dangerous jobs in the nation." In a commentary accompanying his article, Nunes called the lack of progress "a disgrace." Predictably, he's getting angry letters from the industry executives who form his subscriber base. He deserves applause from the rest of us.

Cover Line of the Month

Foreign Policy: "Yeltsin, Schmeltsin!"