Since the birth of this happy little column last January, magazines and the people who put 'em out have haunted my every waking moment. I've read somewhere in the neighborhood of 326 stories about wall tapestries and received magaziney correspondence from as far away as Istanbul (did I say "Istanbul"? I meant "Jersey City"). The postman has come to hate me.

In short, my year as a Magazine Racker has confirmed what I had long suspected: nobody particularly gives a hoot what I think. Nonetheless, I don't have much else to do today, so I'm devoting my final 2005 filing to a look at the four magazines I read before I was forced to do so, occasionally at knifepoint, as part of this gig. Warning: pleasantries to follow.

--Aside from an out-of-character stretch this summer during which it touted the number of reviews on successive covers--78 reviews! 272 reviews! More reviews than God!--Entertainment Weekly remains the only place to go for ahead-of-the-curve entertainment coverage. You can generally ignore the big-movie-o'-the-week cover stories, the only place in the mag that consistently bears publicists' fingerprints. Turn instead to the secondary features, whether a revisionist take on the artist formerly known as Chevy Chase or a here's-why-nobody-goes-to-the-movie-theater-anymore analysis that ducks facile answers (e.g., "the movies aren't very good"). EW also boasts the mainstream media's sharpest collection of reviewers, despite the doddering, cranky presence of Stephen King every four issues.

--The Week doesn't just make me feel smarter; it gives me the fodder I need to make others mistakenly assume that I am smart. Indeed, even a quick perusal allows me and my oafish peers to spread the impression that we can chitchat ably on any number of top-of-mind topics--even as our conversational breadth is, in reality, bookended by rotisserie baseball and tacos. The mag is the world's greatest cocktail-party cheat sheet, a weekly Cliff's Notes for people too time-pressed and/or lazy to aggregate news sources and form a coherent opinion of their own.

None of this, of course, gives The Week the credit it deserves: condensing the reams of on and offline material published every week into a lean 50-page treatise demands serious time-management skills and keen news judgment. The mag offers a concise, partisanship-free perspective on the events that matter, and never skimps on the foreign news often relegated to the margins in other publications. Time and Newsweek remain fine magazines, but they fall way short of The Week in terms of compulsive readability.

--Given the choice between listening to Coldplay's most euphonic warblings or Bruce Springsteen's bathtub farts, I'd happily select the latter. Thus the nearly-30-year-old Springsteen fanzine Backstreets tends to get devoured roughly 18 seconds after it lands in my possession. The title has long since shed its fanboy skin--around the time of Bruce's divorce, I remember the editors lurching into hand-holding mode, either writing or saying something on its hotline along the lines of "there are rough times ahead, but it's gonna work out fine." So while Backstreets hasn't entirely expanded its editorial mission beyond All Things Bruce, the mag now devotes pages to old-school deejays, emerging artists and the online communities/technologies (helloooo, BitTorrent) that allow fans like me to indulge our jones.

Why do I call attention to a fanzine? To beg, beseech and implore fledgling magazine publishers to stop attempting to be all things to all people. Better to serve one niche, however narrow, really well than a bunch of niches spottily. And yes, I realize the magazine financial model implodes without a critical mass of readers, blah blah blah, but it's not like anybody's advertising in magazines nowadays, anyway. Niche is the way to go.

--And then there's Sports Illustrated, the title to which I've subscribed since I was but a wee bitty lad of virtue true. Editorially, I think the mag got a bit soft this year, owing to the expansion of the middle-of-the-book "SI Players" section. This would seem to be SI's nod to younger readers, who care less about deeper analysis than about pop-culture grids and responses to Barbara Walters-ish inanities ("What was your welcome-to-the-Carolina-Leagues moment? What's your favorite breakfast cereal?").

But then you get to the meat of the book, where SI continues to run laps around the competition. Anything bearing the byline of Gary Smith demands immediate attention (few writers within or without sports have crafted a feature as skillful as the one about U.S. Olympic racewalking hopeful Al Heppner), while Rick Reilly and Steve Rushin manage to be witty and incisive without littering their columns with pop-culture detritus. Once I shed that habit myself, Mr. Sports Illustrated, will you hire me? Please?

Anyway, that's all I got. Happy holidays to all and to all a good afternoon, or something. Never call me.

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