IDEA #39. Go to a library and read from cover to cover a general magazine about society and culture, like The New Yorker, The Atlantic, or Harper’s. There are others. Pat yourself on the back if you feel like writing a letter to the editors in response to something you read. If your letter is published, get someone to take you to dinner in celebration.
A surprising amount of the world’s intellectual discourse continues to take place in the pages of magazines frankly targeted at the affluent and educated—and influential. In articles, reviews, and opinion pieces, major topics of concern are introduced, defined, and debated, and anyone wanting to understand the nuances of the issues of the day ought to be familiar with the way in which the “national conversation” takes form at a higher-than-network-television-or-even-cable-news level.
Most public libraries will subscribe to several of these magazines. The New Yorker is notable not only for the high quality of its non-fiction and fiction content but also for its sophisticated cover art and cartoons; in recent years the magazine has broken important stories on aspects of American foreign policy as well as on human rights issues and domestic policy. The Atlantic and Harper’s tend to have a bit less variety (but more illustrations, some in color), but they regularly feature articles by serious “opinion makers” as well as book, film, and even food reviews. The conservative National Review and the more liberal New Republic and The Nation tend to focus more on political issues, including elements of American culture that have become pressure points in liberal–conservative disputation. Vanity Fair and Rolling Stone are the village elders in a related genre of magazines promoting a particular kind of “hip”-ness; many of these are devoted to a serious analysis of popular entertainment, although the range of topics covered runs from outdoor adventure (and gear! Outside is a leader in this area) to alternative politics (Utne Reader and Mother Jones, for example).
There are numerous smaller magazines of opinion and culture, some with explicitly political agendas and others that cover arts and entertainment from an intellectual standpoint. Left alone in a library or bookstore, the curious young reader can become familiar with any numbers of such publications and, more importantly, become familiar with the ways in which writers with cultural influence frame and express their arguments. At the very least, the young reader is likely to be mildly amused by the New Yorker’s cartoons (although some might be rated PG-13)