A few days ago First Things editor Joseph Bottum sent a note around about a redesign of the magazine. Although I had no idea what was in store, I rejoiced at the notion. I’ve loved First Things for a long time for its intelligent and often challenging content, but visually the journal was a bit of a snooze.
Today my copy landed in the mailbox, and it had me dancing around the foyer. First off, there’s the cover – bold background with a line drawing of a reader who looks, to me, like a cross between Bottum and William F. Buckley:
First Things and “Man Reading” by Leanne Sharpton
I love the cover; I love the inclusion of little photographic gems, and–as ever–the book reviews and the droplets of poetry misting amid the prose.
But look, a crossword puzzle! Vraiment! Lizzie is inordinately fond of crossword puzzles and this one looks less challenging than the Sunday NY Times Crossword, but still difficult enough to be fun!
First Things’ redesign, however, is about more than igniting some visual appeal. If National Review was Buckley’s attempt to “stand athwart history, yelling ‘Stop,’ at a time when no one is inclined to do so,” then this overhaul of First Things might be characterized as Bottum reaching through the internet, where ideas are launched and too-quickly lost to the ether, and snatching back those thoughts deserving weight, all while yelling, “Read, damn you! Think!” It is a refusal to surrender to the here-and-gone zeitgeist that is eating up print media, weakening our ability to focus, and scattering our thoughts like buckshot.
As an almost defiant Bottum writes, the revamping doesn’t stop there:
…we have now undertaken the redesign that begins with this issue. In the public discussions of America, First Things works for several things. The fight, for example, with those who want to strip the world of its religious clothing and create the naked public square. The long struggle against the murderousness of abortion. The attempt to sort out the good of modern democracy and science from the horrors that have emerged through what we insist are wrong turns taken in the name of modernity. And, most of all, the effort to be physicians to this Iron Age in which we live—the effort to reinvest the world with the richness, thickness, and freshness that is found only in truly God-haunted nations and societies.
But, as a magazine, First Things also works to preserve the high culture of intellectual journals: a culture that is fading under pressure from the Internet, from the weak American financial situation, and, not to mince words, from the absurd decline of print standards in this country.
Many magazines have given up on poetry—and so we print poems. Many magazines have given up on the long-form reporting that was once the glory of American journalism—and so we want to showcase that kind of story. Many magazines have given up on intellectual essays—and so we continue to present them, as we have always done, to our readers. For that matter, many magazines have given up on superior and intellectually challenging crossword puzzles—and so (over some internal objections, I should note) I demanded that we pick up, as well, that fallen standard of journalism.
Most of all, American magazines these days seem to have given up on elegance—and so we decided to demand art covers, and interior photographs, and fine text layout.
In other words, First Things defiantly refuses to accept the diminished condition of American print today. The object in your hands must be a pleasure to hold and read—or what good is a printed journal, with the cacophony of the Web sounding all around us?
Do read his whole piece, particularly the last paragraph, which is every bit as decisive a blow to our moment as Governor Chris Christie’s gone-viral smackdown of journalistic mewling and manipulation.
Then sample some of First Things’ wares. I am very happy to be the mongrel-least among its impressive roster of contributors.