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first person

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Illustration by Marley Allen-Ash

I have spent a lifetime reading The New Yorker. More accurately, I have spent a lifetime trying to keep up with the magazine every week. Next to my bed sits a mountain of back issues that never seems to get smaller no matter how hard I try to work my way through it. Even during the darkest days of the pandemic, when I was stuck at home with plenty of time on my hands, I scarcely made a dent in the darned thing.

If I were married for as long as I have been trying to whittle down that pile, I would be approaching my 42nd wedding anniversary, which is three times longer than the national average, according to Statistics Canada. To put it another way, I have spent almost 294 dog years scrambling to keep up, based on the popular (albeit largely discredited) notion that one canine year equals seven human ones.

Like Sisyphus, I am condemned to toil ceaselessly at a task that can’t ever be completed. But I would rather be doomed for all eternity to read back issues of The New Yorker than to push a heavy boulder up a steep hill. You never know what you might learn while you’re at it.

There are many ways to read The New Yorker. You can cherry-pick items of interest or read from cover to cover. You can work your way from front to back, from back to front or jump around in any order. You can read it in print, as I do, or online at The New Yorker website where, in addition to the weekly magazine, you’ll also find a whole lot more to wade through.

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I began reading The New Yorker in the days when it was simply a magazine. I grew up in a household that read it thanks to my father, who was a lifelong subscriber. I became a subscriber myself in the early eighties when William Shawn was still editor, only the second in the magazine’s 96-year history. The New Yorker was more spartan back then. No photographs or full-page illustrations graced the pages. Nor were there letters to the editor, blurbs about contributors, restaurant reviews or a humour page. Longer articles were serialized over consecutive issues and writers’ bylines appeared at the end, rather than the beginning, of stories.

Still, there were plenty of cartoons and that’s what I read mostly at first. Gradually, however, I was seduced by other content, often stories on obscure topics that I never imagined would interest me. Who knew a two-part article about a long-distance trucker from Montana could be so fascinating? Or an article about playing golf in Morocco could be so compelling? Eventually, I began devouring the magazine almost cover to cover and have been playing catch up ever since.

When a new issue arrives, the first thing I do is turn to the back to check out the Cartoon Caption Contest, which invites readers to supply a missing caption for a different cartoon each week. Next, I flip back to the front to glance at the table of contents. Then I drop the issue on my bedside stack. I’ll get to it … as soon as I’ve made my way through all the earlier ones.

Consequently, I might end up reading about a topic making headlines long after the fact, yet this in no way diminishes my enjoyment. Even dated articles invariably seem relevant and fresh. Only when the magazine features coverage that is too newsworthy to resist will I read an item out of order.

Should I really be devoting so much time to a single publication? And an American one, to boot? I can’t remember the last time I curled up with a good book. But while my strict diet of back issues keeps me from reading many other things, it has given me a taste for topics I might otherwise overlook.

Over the years, I have learned about the abuse of civil forfeiture in the United States, the illegal collecting of rare bird eggs in the U.K. and lithium mining in Bolivia. I have learned why DNA testing doesn’t always work; how e-mail travels in cyberspace; and how blockchain technology works. I have also learned that widening highways can make traffic congestion worse instead of better; that pushing the door-close button in an elevator doesn’t make the doors close any faster; plus, a myriad of other fun facts I wish I could remember even if not everything still holds up.

For an American publication, The New Yorker can pay unexpected attention to Canada. Some of its best-known contributors have Canadian connections, including writers Adam Gopnik and Malcolm Gladwell, and author and illustrator Bruce McCall. The magazine has championed the work of some of our country’s best short-story writers including Mavis Gallant and Alice Munro. It has profiled well-known Canadians such as NHL player P.K. Subban, writer and activist Naomi Klein, and late singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen. And it has ventured deep into the Canadian heartland with stories on poutine, arguably our national dish, and the discount clothing store Frenchy’s, possibly the Maritimes’ best-kept shopping secret.

Some time ago, I encountered a neighbour in my building as we were both fishing the latest issue of The New Yorker out of our mailboxes.

“Do you have trouble keeping up?” she asked me.

“You have no idea!” I replied.

I am heartened to know I’m not the only slowpoke as I continue to chip away at my pile. At last count, 16 weeks of back issues were waiting to be read. When I finally get through them, another 16 weeks’ worth will be waiting still. My fate is sealed. For as long as I read The New Yorker, I will be pushing that boulder up the hill. But unlike Sisyphus, I will enjoy it, every page of the way.

Sheila Rosenberg lives in Toronto.

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