It affects me more than it should, but I'm often cowed into scornful self-consciousness when my adoration of Harper's is met by the not not-understandable perception that it is one of the United States' most élitist publications; this despite the fact that, for well over a hundred years now, the journalistic behemoth has displayed an unerring sensibility toward pursuing the odder and more fascinating elements of human existence and exploring them with a wide-eyed, non-ideological liberalism. The magazine's often perverse curiosity is on most consistent, if not most comprehensive, display in their "Readings" and "Findings" sections, which never prove to fall short of providing its readers with some of the most tantalizing bits and insights into the bizarreness of the world and its inhabitants, whether through entrées into its more beguilingly mundane or outré facets. Perhaps this is what garners it this élitist impression held by so many: these two sections – along with its more read and quoted "Harper's Index" – often seem to be looking on at the rest of the world as if merely bemused, from on high, by the antics that occupy the weltanschauungen of the world's less intellectual arenas. To apply this to the magazine entire would be reductive and patently absurd: its articles reflect a challenging, diversely liberal restlessness from which more predictably and unthinkingly left-leaning periodicals like n+1 and the post-Navasky The Nation could learn a great deal – but these sections do often come dangerously close to aligning themselves with this streamlined criticism of the magazine: I wouldn't be able to defend this critique, only lessen its simplicity, as I do find it to bear some troubling truth; and thus this scornful self-consciousness seems entirely merited.
That said, I await the "Readings" and, in particular, the "Findings" sections with great excitement each month. The former section is generally an aggregation of excerpts from notable works from within the "intellectual community" along with highlights from less-accessible sources of governmental hijinks, always quite troublesome and variously nefarious, and queasily invasive pieces of true-crime stories, often in the form of transcribed phone calls to 911 or, more recently, between suspected terrorists or CIA operatives. A little while ago I highlighted one of my favorite examples of this: an excerpt of the introduction to a book on judo by Vladimir Putin, among others; if you're interested, you can find this here. But it's the "Findings" section that I always read first, and this month's is among the best I've ever read; the page is a wonderfully composed assemblage of recent, generally pseudo-scientific findings, written in terrifically aloof prose that amounts to one of the best prose house styles to be found. It seems that this section is written by visual artist and writer Rafil Kroll-Zaidi, although nothing that I can find within the magazine itself says as much: only the online edition gives him this credit. This month's includes such titillating discoveries as, to quote directly from the section: "Only 8.5 percent of Finns fear that those who laugh near them are laughing at them, as opposed to 80 percent of Thais" – a typical example of dubious research proffered without mention of its source – and "Grieving Barbary macaque (Macaca fasicularis) mothers who have lost their infants suckle at their own breasts, and crab-eating macaques (Macaca fasicularis) prefer cartoon macaques to CGI macaques, whose almost-lifelike features place them in the Uncanny Valley of repellent simulacra." One of this month's most terrific sentences touches on what has been the latest ongoing debate in the ceaselessly, fascinatingly absurd conjectures about the potential hazards and quandaries raised by the Large Hadron Collider: "Two prominent physicists continued to argue that the Large Hadron Collider was being sabotaged by the future"; more information on this debate may be found here, among other places.
A staple of the style of the "Findings" section is that incongruous bits of information are often paired together in a single sentence or deposited, almost arbitrarily, in between otherwisely-concerned sentences, usually with no reference to their sources or any further explication; the result is often hilarious and often unnerving, but always displays a marvelous use of unexpected syntax and word-choice. This month's "Findings" section may be found here; I certainly recommend, should you pass Harper's in a bookstore or library, just flipping to the final page and reading through the page's sundry offerings: from several minutes' reading comes an incalculable amount of fun and fascinating provocations.
The image used for this post is Kodak Velox F2, Expires Sept. 1, 1941, by Alison Rossiter; this work, along with three others by her, is used in the December 2009 "Findings" section of Harper's.