Love and Happiness

All I want for Christmas...is a subscription to Us Weekly

Everything really isn't rotten in the media. Sure, there's serial plagiarism, flagrant hypocrisy, fiction pretending to be fact, and all the other sins that keep people like me in business. But there's more to anyone's media life than kvetching and handing out citations. My own is full of excellent moments I generally don't get to mention here, because they haven't made me angry or indignant, aren't linked to Topic A, or, in some cases, aren't even journalism.

Another media year is ending, and it was chock-full of outrages. So I think it's time I came out on my secret joys. Here, in no particular order, is the media stuff that lately gives me pleasure:

1. Listmania! on Amazon.com. Lists compiled by Amazon users, with brief comments about what's so special, or awful, about each book, CD, DVD on the list. There are gasbags and numbskulls galore. But some lists are masterpieces of concision and wit. Last week, I found one called "Books I Read Instead of Chasing Women," by a Mark Hamann, whose pithy notes on such cerebral fare as Ontogeny and Phylogeny by Stephen Jay Gould had me doubled over at my keyboard. How can you not love a genre that includes the list, "Let's Read Japanese Science Fiction in English!!"

2. In-flight magazines. Have I become unspeakably dull, or have these things gotten much better in the last 10 years? I've actually torn out articles to save, and will occasionally take the whole issue home to finish later. And I can spend a good hour exploring the mysteries of SkyMall. My favorite is enRoute, from Air Canada. It's bilingual, it's full of gorgeous graphics, and it tries very hard to be hip, but in a totally inoffensive way. In short, Canada between two covers.

3. Reason magazine. The libertarian monthly. Redesigned under Editor-in-Chief Nick Gillespie and loaded with sharp content. Even manages to make deregulation unboring. The recent 35th anniversary issue named 35 Heroes of Freedom, "people who have made the world groovier and groovier since 1968," including William Burroughs, Barry Goldwater, Madonna, Richard Nixon, and Ted Turner. The same issue called Cindy Skrzycki, The Washington Post's regulatory columnist, "a modern-day Virgil." There is nothing remotely like this magazine. The prospect of a face-off between George W. Bush and Howard Dean—each libertarian, in a way—makes me think Reason's big moment could be coming.

4. BOLDFACE NAMES, the gossip/glitterati column by New York Times reporter Joyce Wadler. Runs inside the Metro section in New York, and deep in the A section in the Washington edition, and is always worth the dig. Wadler has created something new: a column that knows how to relish the spectacle of celebrity without joining it, and manages to turn fame into philosophy. Her breathtakingly terse style is built largely on ironic self-abasement—the worm's-eye view. Nobody in newspaperdom describes the staging of celebrity, or walks the chalk line of meanness, with such finesse. "Diane Keaton ... sort of fluttered by," she wrote of one recent movie opening, "like a low-flying Annie Hall balloon in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, surrounded by handlers."

5. Us Weekly. The magazine that has no distance at all from celebrities. By not pretending to be anything but what it is, a besotted fanzine, Us winds up feeling unconflicted and weirdly honest. Seeing celebrities as they want to be seen, i.e., through the eyes of their publicists, can be more enlightening than seeing them through the eyes of actual journalists. At last, America has something that can stand next to Britain's glorious HELLO!

6. Washington Monthly. The little neoliberal magazine that could is back, again. After a long moribund spell, the monthly entered a new age a few years ago under energetic Editor-in-Chief Paul Glastris. Every time you turn around lately, there's another article making trouble in the politico-media sandbox. The current issue has a Grade A filet by Nicholas Confessore, who argues that pundit and author James Glassman is using journalism as a kind of cover to promote the interests of a corporate lobby group. Feels like a glimpse of some dystopian media future, except it's already here.

7. The Week magazine. A sort of ultimate digest of the news. Drawn largely from other media coverage, The Week captures what you somehow missed, from Peruvian politics to all you need to know about that new Al Green album. Fun but never silly. Lots of Delta Shuttle types who abandoned the newsweeklies long ago are having a nice quiet affair with this magazine.

8. Real estate ads. Is it the mortgage-rate boom, the sense that this is where America is making all its money, that's made these so much fun? The best ads are in The New York Times Magazine—home of the triple-mint 3BR for only $6 million!—and The Wall Street Journal's Friday weekend section, where you can ogle fantasy houses from Maine to Maui. Not to mention Realtor.com, with those 360-degree virtual tours. Voyeurism has entered a whole new age.

9. TV Land, Nickelodeon's banquet of old TV shows. The best family gathering place on the tube. Turns out you can't predict which shows will hold up. Get Smart and The Flying Nun have aged like great wines. And the early, black-and-white episodes of Bewitched, shot through with dark cultural commentary, have transcended mere television and become art. But The Waltons and Mr. Ed? I'm afraid not. Off you go, to the ash heap of media history. Even in a generous mood, a critic has to have standards.