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