My foolproof 2021 holiday-gift guide

You want some­thing cheap? That can be ordered online? That’s immune from supply-chain disrup­tions? That doesn’t promote more screen time? That makes you look smart?

I’ve got the answer—a maga­zine subscrip­tion. Here’s my current stack:

Despite a harrowing 20 years where ad pages yielded (too) much ground to doom­scrolling, there’s still plenty of excel­lent maga­zine writing. As a reader, I would go farther: I often prefer reading maga­zines to books. It seems slightly heretical to say so, but—

1) Maga­zines have editors and fact checkers who ensure a consis­tent level of writing. Books by famous authors get editors, but with others, you’re exposed what­ever stan­dard the author has set for them­selves.

2) With maga­zines, you’re more likely to read about a surprising topic. (A recent New Yorker feature about space junk—?!?!—was riveting and terri­fying.) With books, the time & cost commit­ment is higher, so one is more apt to avoid risk and clunkers.

3) Maga­zines can cover news and recent events. Books can’t. “Ah, but I have internet news!” I know. But there’s some­thing about getting news from a weekly publi­ca­tion that nicely smooths out the jittery internet texture of Some­thing! New! Every! Minute!, which at this point in my personal history feels like drag­ging my brain down an infi­nite cobble­stone stairway.

4) Maga­zines often have great typog­raphy and layout. With books, all the budget goes to the cover. (Though if you want to see what’s possible with enough time & money, order a letter­press book from TOC Berlin, run by Susanna Dulkinys and Erik Spiek­er­mann, author of the fore­word for Prac­tical Typog­raphy.)

5) Maga­zines are lighter and more portable.

My current subscrip­tions (I have no finan­cial connec­tion or other incen­tive to recom­mend):

New York

My favorite subscrip­tion for many years. The drop from weekly to biweekly, the retire­ment of Adam Moss, and the sale to Vox Media were alarming. But it has persisted with top-notch writing and design.

The New Yorker

Expen­sive, and the jokes made at its expense are usually fair, espe­cially those about their worship of what­ever ancient deity demands a diacritic in coöper­a­tion but not zoolog­ical. But like New York, it does not falter, and it even arrives twice as often.

Bloomberg Businessweek

Highly nerdy about economic policy, excel­lent writing about poli­tics and tech, and their features are deeply reported, like when they beat up on Carnival Cruise Lines.

The Guardian Weekly

I suppose many prefer The Econ­o­mist. But I prefer the Guardian’s sense of humor, and deeper coverage of US news. I also never get tired of its beau­tiful custom font super­family.


Can be hit or miss, but also weird and wonderful.

Mother Jones, The American Prospect and Jacobin

Excel­lent coverage of labor economics, including state & local issues like Cali­fornia’s Prop 22.

The Spectator

Some well-written moderate conser­v­a­tive view­points (which I enjoy reading, even if I don’t agree) though each month one must often trudge around a certain amount of immod­erate ranting to reach them. Still, if you have a Fox News-loving grand­parent and no idea what to get them, this will be a home run.

Foreign Affairs

Often over­looked, and certain pieces presup­pose a foun­da­tion in inter­na­tional policy that a general reader is unlikely to have. But the editing is really tight and consis­tent. When I have enough back­ground to follow along, I really enjoy it. Under­rated.

PS to those still leaning toward a tech-related gift: the Mozilla Foun­da­tion’s Privacy Not Included guide might convince you other­wise.

update, 138 days later

Reluc­tantly I am letting many of my maga­zine subscrip­tions lapse. As the 2024 pres­i­dental elec­tion looms, more of the coverage is shifting toward national poli­tics gener­ally and Trump in partic­ular. I’ve read enough about this person for one life­time. The only winning move is not to play.