The Story of O

My question is: Should I renew my subscription to O, The Oprah Magazine?

I’m serious. And it’s not just about the money, although there is that. It’s about my head space and who I let into it.

My history with so-called “women’s magazines” is long, varied and fraught. I started reading Seventeen when I was 12. I was so infatuated with the teenage world I’d glimpsed that I borrowed stacks and stacks of back issues from the library and hauled them home in the back of a little red wagon. Digest that image for a moment. I was an innocent, but I wanted to be sophisticated, and in my preteen mind, Seventeen was the height of sophistication.

And on many levels it was a safe introduction to a more grown-up milieu. Friends and boyfriends and Fall Fashions(!). And even poetry. Yes, Seventeen had a poetry section back then, and it published the work of young writers. A year later, in fact, I submitted some of my poetry, and the magazine bought three of the poems and actually paid me for them. It was heady stuff–my first professional experience as a writer. When two of the poems (the magazine never published the third) were published some months later, I briefly became an extremely minor local celebrity, even causing mutterings from some of my peers. I was the object of envy! Me!

Yet there was a down side, and it was not inconsiderable. My exposure to images of beautiful, slender models was teaching me to become dissatisfied with my body, even as it was growing and changing. The summer of my 14th year I went on my first diet. I drank unsweetened tea, I ate dry toast, I biked a lot, and I took tennis lessons. I returned to school, a high school freshman, and a size 10, barely. Considering I was 5’8″ and still growing in every direction, it was a satisfying result to me, if not particularly healthy.

Before I turned 17, I graduated from Seventeen to Mademoiselle, to Glamour, Elle, and finally Vogue. I’ve since had subscriptions to Mirabella (which I still miss), Bust and More. (And I’ve certainly read others, though I never committed to a subscription. I had a longtime fascination with the Can This Marriage Be Saved? column in Ladies’ Home Journal, decades before I was ever married myself.)

I’m not sure when I connected my persistent sense of insecurity with my brother’s exasperated admonition that I read “too many fashion magazines.” But it began to dawn on me in my 20s that the notion that I was “not okay” partly sprang from the relentless and repetitive articles about losing weight, getting fit, having fun at parties, finding and properly applying makeup, discovering the “right” haircut for my face, and on and on. And though the fashions in Vogue were 100 percent ridiculous for my small-scale, small-income lifestyle, the assault of even that exotic book’s words and images probably shaped me in ways I’m still not aware of. After all, the women’s magazines aim to be “taste makers.” They set the standards for everything.

Cut to the recent past: I’d been nearly “off” fashion magazines for a few years when I got hooked on O. It started–as it often does–with an inexpensive year-long subscription. I loved seeing the glossy, colorful cover in my mailbox every month. I enjoyed all the book reviews, and many of the critics’ recommendations pointed me to delightful novels I might not have discovered on my own. The layouts of lovely if useless items like sleek place mats and brightly colored rubber watches made me salivate with desire. (I’m a sucker for a beautiful layout with a lot of white space.)

And every issue contains content about an important and serious issue–finding and cooking with sustainably harvested seafood; or an intriguing essay about a female author’s romance with a transman. The writing is often compelling and insightful, and I admire (and envy) many of the contributors.

On the other hand, every month without fail, the magazine delivers pages and pages of self-help. Because who doesn’t need some help with relationships, health, finances, diet, exercise, hormone replacement therapy, spirituality, or finding the “perfect” pair of jeans for a wide bottom?

I need all of that stuff–or, if I don’t now, I will someday soon. At the same time, I’m not sure I need it all, every month. And given my own tendencies toward self-analysis and obsession, I’m not sure it’s wise for me to allow Oprah and her self-helping helpers into my home 12 months a year. I don’t know if I want to spend quite so much time with Martha Beck, Dr. Phil, Suze Orman and the rest. Can I cull the good (those reviews of novels I want to know about) and leave the bad (the exhortation to create a vision map I don’t have time for)?

I’m just not sure.

What do you think? Should I renew my subscription to O? Or do you have another magazine to recommend? (Any Redbook readers out there?)

Who Do You Love?

Twitter is a recent obsession. I signed up for an account, and bing! I was a guest on the edge of a fascinating party filled with witty, informed people sending zingers back and forth. Sometimes the other guests even talk to me. Intoxicating.

But my first love was books, and to books I shall always return. Tweeted bons mots last a few minutes on the screen, but books linger in the mind, whether you want them to or not.

Though the inspiration for this post was Susan Orlean’s Twitter hashtag #booksthatchangedmyworld, I am always keeping a list of authors (especially novelists) I wish would write just a little faster.

For some on my list, it’s too late (Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Laurie Colwin, Carol Shields). However, there’s always rereading–a particularly delicious exercise in certain cases because you can feel virtuous for revisiting The Classics while also settling into the company of old, much-missed friends.

So who’s on my list of go-to book authors?

(In no particular order)

Jane Austen: I can never get enough of Emma or Pride and Prejudice. A quirky favorite is Northanger Abbey, complete with satire at the expense of readers of Gothic novels–the best-selling thrillers of the age.

Shakespeare: Okay, perhaps I overstate by including old Will. In my imagination, I read a lot of Shakespeare. In reality, it can be a chore to haul out my college copy of the Riverside Shakespeare, which is far from light reading, in any sense of the word. But I do love Shakespeare–especially Hamlet, As You Like It and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. So Shakespeare stays on the list.

Meg Wolitzer: Surrender, Dorothy to The Ten-Year Nap, the “mature” novels (the only ones I’ve read) are so astute. Her mother, Hilma Wolitzer (The Doctor’s Daughter) is also a go-to novelist.

Nick Hornby: Who doesn’t like Nick Hornby? He’s the male writer women like to read. I read Juliet, Naked in a trice, and then it was gone, all gone!

Elinor Lipman: Elinor Lipman is, to me, a contemporary Jane Austen. I know that comparison gets bandied about a lot. But she generally includes at least one romantic relationship per book and has a lovely way with conversation. She writes comedies; her characters live happily ever after, but they often take the long way around to their ultimate contented conclusions.

Laurie Colwin: She wrote for Gourmet (another much-missed source of good writing), and her food columns were collected in Home Cooking and More Home Cooking. My favorite novel of hers is probably A Big Storm Knocked It Over. I especially like to read the book, which centers on two dear women friends who marry and have babies, when I’ve been pregnant; she captures all the poignant, odd feelings of having someone inside you. Like everyone who reads her, I am sometimes struck with sadness that she is gone.

Carol Shields: Another in the category of novelists cut down too soon (age 68, in 2003), Carol Shields depicted her characters with incredible compassion and humanity. Almost effortlessly, she’ll make you cry. Her final book, Unless, is great for that, and for driving home the unfortunate truth that our children grow up and away.

Tom Perrotta: Author of the books-made-into-movies Election and Little Children, he somehow tricks you into sympathizing with some vile characters. Or just ordinarily difficult people you can’t imagine yourself liking. But in the end, you do.

Sadly, I’ve got a few authors to whom I’ll give short shrift, and they don’t deserve it. This post is getting a bit long, however, so I’ll just mention: Cathleen Schine (The Three Weissmanns of Westport) and Allegra Goodman (Intuition). On my guilty-pleasure pusher list, which is longer than I care to admit, I acknowledge the gratifyingly prolific Joanna Trollope (Second Honeymoon).

Which authors do you read over and over? Whose books are your guilty pleasures?

The Name Game

My mother has always told me there’s no story behind my name. She just liked it. That’s what she says. Sometimes I try to come up with bizarre stories to explain why she won’t tell me the real source–a hated minor political figure of the mid-’60s, a frat boy who hit on her at a party, a jerk professor from her college days.

Whatever the inspiration, I was named Reid and grew up in a reading family: a mother with a BA in English literature, a father with an MFA in creative writing, shelves lined with books, local library trusteeships accepted, college courses taught.

And it didn’t take long before grade-school classmates cottoned on to the fact that my name was a pun. Yes, “Reid is reading!” Hahahahahahaha. And it was true. In the small town where I grew up, I once or twice walked the (very straight) sidewalk from elementary school partway home while reading a book. (I think it was a biography of Louisa May Alcott, but it might have been the one about Amelia Earhart.)

My little brother (whose juvenile taunts can be somewhat discounted by the fact that he recently earned a Ph.D. in English literature) used to accuse me of reading too much. And putting too much stock in what I read–instead of what I experienced directly.

True enough. I’m a serious reader. A professional reader. A person perhaps overly influenced by what she reads. A little analysis, and alternative perspectives offered in comments, may help me put my reading in proper context. There’s always someone–many someones–who have read more than I have, or more critically, or more carefully. I hope to hear from those people.

This blog will describe my reading (novels, nonfiction, blogs, newspapers, tweets, magazines, advertisements) and how it’s become part of my life.

Naturally enough, my first name has shaped aspects of my life, and I am incorporating it into the name of the blog. How do you think your own name has affected the course of your personal history? What, or whom, do you associate your name with?