The Art of Ideas

By James Bennet

In 1857 the printed word was unopposed,” the editors of this magazine mused, a bit wistfully, in 1957, on the 100th anniversary of the founding of The Atlantic. “Books and magazines were a necessity for the thoughtful, and reading aloud was an evening pastime.” On that centennial, as the editors unveiled a “much more inviting” design of the magazine, the competition seemed to them to have grown substantially more fierce. The printed word had to contend “with radio, television, the picture book, and—a new and demanding rival—the long-playing record.”

Yet, as the decades waltzed by with varying grace, The Atlantic proved able to perform its own role quite comfortably alongside not only the aggressive LP, but the EP, the 45, the reel-to-reel, the eight-track tape, the cassette, the compact disc, and—so far, touch wood—the MP3 and streaming audio. How?

Partly by not changing. The purpose of The Atlantic as expressed by the editors in November 1957 is its purpose now. “We still believe, as did our founders, that the free competition of ideas has made this country what it is,” the editors wrote. To advance these ideas, and with them the American project, they wanted to create a home for ambitious, fractious writers.

And The Atlantic has also thrived, in part, by changing. To promote the competition of ideas, The Atlantic now has three Web sites and conducts dozens of live events a year. Our “printed” words are also conveyed digitally, on the Web and on tablets and phones. We are reaching a far larger audience than we ever have. Optimism about change—impatience for it—was part of the radical founding ethos of The Atlantic, and this has turned out to be a good thing, today as in 1957, given all the forms and means of expression that are clamoring for your attention (though still not drowning out the poor LP, let alone radio, television, or the picture book—maybe because, in testament to the suppleness of human intelligence, technologies have a way of supplementing, rather than simply replacing, one another).

With this issue, we have redesigned and restructured the printed magazine to, we hope, more powerfully present stories for you to think about and argue with. To give more scope to the expertise and interests of our growing staff of writers, we have added several features to the Dispatches section, alongside the short essays and character sketches you are accustomed to. For example, this month the editor of TheAtlantic.com’s Health Channel, Dr. James Hamblin, writes our Study of Studies—an analysis of how academic surveys complicate one another—while Jen Doll, of our news site, The Atlantic Wire, delivers the first installment of our language column, Wordplay.

We have more clearly delineated the sections of the magazine by collecting our book reviews and other cultural coverage in a new Culture File. Longer books essays, together with short fiction, will continue to run at the back of the magazine, behind the feature stories that are The Atlantic’s editorial foundation.

The new design is the work of our creative director, Darhil Crooks. He set out to create a look that is as elegant, provocative, and accessible as the prose—or, at least, as we aspire for the prose to be. One of his nods to our heritage is his decision to bring back our colophon, the image of Poseidon that appears on this page. In one of our more shocking redesigns, in 1947, The Atlantic for the first time presented a large image, rather than simply a table of contents, on its cover. For that cover, the image was our original colophon, also shown on this page. If you compare the old version with the new, I think you’ll see evidence both of continuity and of fitting change.


 

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2013/03/the-art-of-ideas/309241/