Magazine subscriptions are to households like cars are to roads: no matter
how much space or time is available, they always fill it up and then some. Across
the country, New Yorkers pile up reproachfully on bedside tables, Foreign Affairs
lies unread under a pile of bills, and topical articles of enormous interest
in the New York Review of Books grow staler by the day, eventually being tossed
into the recycling bin with yesterday’s equally-untouched business section of
the newspaper. So the last thing that anybody needs is a new journal of ideas
filled with fascinating articles and expert voices, a magazine that will only
add to the guilt complexes of media junkies across the US and UK.
Tough. It’s here, it’s called Topic Magazine,
and it’s a great read. Think of it as a younger, hipper, closer-to-the-streets
version of the New York Review of Books, only without the book reviews or topical
essays. Hm, that doesn’t help much, does it?
At first glace, Topic looks and feels a little bit like The
Believer: a squarish, perfect-bound magazine run by a bunch of enthusiastic
kids. David Haskell, the editor, has recently moved to Brooklyn on the grounds
that New York is the center of the media universe, but even he is unpaid and
having to make ends meet by waiting tables.
Topic is really nothing like The Believer at all, however, even if it shares
a certain amount of faith in the existence of a large number of young, intelligent
readers who are willing to spend roughly $10 an issue on a journal of ideas.
For one thing, it is resolutely uninterested in fiction, either as content or
as something to be written about. For another, it doesn’t have a manifesto or
any kind of general editorial voice or vision: the idea is to devote each issue
to a certain topic, and then let the experts on that subject take over with
interesting and quirky views of their own.
For much the same reason, Topic is really nothing like Granta, the other magazine
to which it is frequently compared, largely on the grounds that both were born
at Cambridge University. Topic, indeed, isn’t moving to New York entirely: it’s
keeping a large portion of its masthead in Cambridge, in an attempt to ensure
that it retains its internationalist outlook and doesn’t succumb to the New
Topic has lifted Granta’s idea of turning every magazine into a theme issue,
but again the difference is in the writing: while Granta wants the best writers
it can find, Topic is more interested in finding people who might not make a
living from writing, but who do know what they’re talking about. So far, no
one has contributed more than one article to the magazine, and most of the masthead
has never been published in it.
The themes of the magazine generally alternate between big and small. The first
was War; it was followed by Fantasy, Cities and Fads. Next up are Prison, Food,
Topic generally does an extremely good job at finding writers who
both know a lot about their subject and who have an interesting and unusual
take on things. In the Cities issue, for instance, Brian Gallagher descends
into New York’s subway tunnels to follow the trail of a legendary graffiti artist,
while a bit later on the great Alex Garvin has a fascinatingly revisionist take
on Robert Moses. And don’t expect denouncements of institutional racism in the
Prison issue, or profiles of celebrity chefs in Food.
What you should expect from every issue is a very international group of contributors
– Africa, for instance, is if anything overrepresented here, which makes
for a refreshing change. You should expect articles which present hackneyed
topics in refreshing and eye-opening ways, often by people who, after reading
their pieces, you’re astonished you’ve never heard of. You should also expect
a small amount of photography, printed, in stark contrast to Granta, on paper
which actually does it justice.
Visually, Topic is nothing special, although the design is very much a work
in progress, and future issues might well have rather more pizzazz. And as a
magazine, it’s pretty homogenous: there’s no front-of-the-book material, and
all of the articles seem to hover in the 1,500 to 4,500-word mid-length feature
range. But Topic’s a quarterly, so it can get away with that sort of thing:
you have three months to get through it, after all, before newer issues start
arriving and the chances of your ever reading it begin to diminish substantially.
Topic 5: Prisons should be out pretty soon, at a quality newsstand near you.
Check it out, and tell me what you think: my guess is that there’s a good chance
you’ll find it well worth ten bucks, and decide to splurge on a $35 subscription.
That’s $30 less than The Believer, and although you’ll get fewer issues, you’ll
also get no holier-than-thou ads-are-evil philosophy, and you’ll get much more
food for thought. Assuming, that is, you ever find the time to read it.