Monday, May 23, 2011

General Interest/Generally Interesting: June 2011 issue of The Walrus magazine

If necessity is the mother of invention, then satisfaction is at least the love child of expectation. We feel the constant need to calibrate our expectations, evident in the popularity of e-commerce consumer reviews, ‘best-of’ polls and blogs such as the one you’re now reading. We want to know what we’re getting before we get it. It’s tricky to manage expectations with a magazine: does the publication in general align with our ideology? Does the issue itself interest us? Purpose also plays a role in expectation. The link between authorial intention and reader results is often murky, but can be elucidated if readers try to understand intention.

If I had to write the mandate of The Walrus magazine, it would be: to make readers question assumptions, reconsider prejudices and stretch perspectives. The magazine’s actual mandate is much more straightforward: “to be a national general interest magazine about Canada and its place in the world.” Here’s where I quibble over semantics. General interest seems to imply that any Canadian adult could pick up the magazine, read it and find it interesting. While the subject matter would interest a wide cross section of Canadians, it’s clearly written for an educated and engaged audience. Since most local newspapers are written at a junior-high reading level, The Walrus would likely not appeal to these same readers.

There’s no doubt that there are people who find The Walrus intensely readable. And unlike other periodicals of biblical proportions, one can easily read the entire magazine in one sitting. Without an Audi or DKNY ad on every second page, it’s a size you can actually put in your satchel and tote around. The articles are not current in the time-sensitive meaning of the word, but they’re definitely relevant. For a magazine presumably on the left of political centre, the contributors provide an objective, non-pejorative and eye-opening commentary.

The cover story purports to explain “why immigration means less crime.” I confess I was expecting a sophisticated argument about how immigrants require government social programs which also serve would-be criminals as an unexpected byproduct. The connection is more intuitive: first and second generation immigrants are less likely to commit a crime because of the tight-knit communities they build for themselves and the strong work ethic that brought them to this country. This is an important point. Despite the fact that Canada is increasingly multicultural, I’m embarrassed to say that anti-minority sentiment still penetrates wine-infused gatherings with my extended family. Obviously they need to start reading more than local papers.

Although I’ve avoided science since high school, even I was compelled by the article on climatic geoengineering. Apparently there are human-produced mechanisms – carbon scrubbers, cloud whitening and iron sulfate particles – that could help counteract the effects of global warming. My initial reaction was apprehensive at best: haven’t human beings already messed with the environment enough? But once again, The Walrus made previously outlandish arguments seem inarguably sensible. We can’t dismiss geoengineering just because we don’t yet know how it will work. Government (not market forces – “that’s how we got into this mess in the first place”) need to figure it out. In the meantime, the scare factor of geoengineering actually being deployed in our environment may jolt people into taking preemptive action.

Cardinal Marc Ouellet
Next up, religion: clearly The Walrus doesn’t shy away from contentious issues. The Walrus’s article about Quebec’s Cardinal Marc Ouellet was oddly refreshing. The author not only gives Cardinal Ouellet the benefit of the doubt, but actually concedes “that the Church can provide a higher sense of purpose.” Personally, I still don’t agree with much of the doctrine Cardinal Ouellet stands for, but I came to that decision on my own, not due to the persuasive abilities of the author. When so many journalists are quick to tell you what to think and convert you to their beliefs, I felt honored that the author simply provided me all the information I needed to make my own decision.

There were plenty of diversions from serious issues as well: an entertaining short story, a truly miscellaneous ‘Miscellany’ (about everything from ice cream flavors to hockey stats to a satiric take on first-time home buying), specially commissioned paintings and even a comic strip starring Toronto Mayor Rob Ford & Prime Minister Stephen Harper. The only complaint I have concerns the literary criticism piece, “Supersized.” Like the novels this article discusses, it was too long and too boring to digest properly.

Unlike the mammal from which it takes its name, The Walrus generally does not lug around much unnecessary blubber. If you’re looking for an antidote to the empty brain calories of summer entertainment, the June issue of The Walrus will give your brain a workout.

Mari-Beth Slade is a food and wine lover, wayward librarian and would-be philosopher. She works as a marketer for an accounting firm in Halifax, but spends most days doing yoga poses at her desk or brainstorming discussion topics for her book club.

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