More than a year ago now, I received an old copy of Popular Mechanics in the mail from an old friend, Barbara Arnold, a Colorado painter. She knows I have a weakness for aging printed matter, and she guessed correctly that the content would appeal to me.
The editorial content of the magazine (technological instructions for home projects par excellence) pales in comparison to the advertising.
And I'm not the only one to think so, especially in the broader landscape of periodicals.
Sean Latham and Robert Scholes observed something comparable in their 2006 essay, “The Rise of Periodical Studies.” They describe the loss associated with library practices from the last century, according to which advertising material was routinely stripped out of magazines before they were bound into volumes. Latham and Scholes conclude, in part:
Modern culture was created from a still-obscure alchemy of commercial and aesthetic impulses and processes. And this mixture was most visible in magazines... If we really wish to know the past and not just a few monuments preserved from it, we must study the way that art and commodity culture influenced each other for the past three centuries and more. And this means exploring more fully and more intensely the fascinating world of periodicals.
True enough, though the implied binary equation (art and commerce) seems oversimplified. But that's a quibble.
I'm drawn to these things because they paint a portrait of their audience. Of course they are funny. And yes, they're corny beyond belief. (Though I have noticed that advertising never seems as stupid as it does in somebody else's country. Which suggests that we don't see it so clearly in our own place or time.)
But finally I feel recognition, of limitation and longing, in the culture of self-improvement. I respect it. An American unmoved by the visceral urge to self-improvement has lost touch with her culture. Correspondence schools, Dale Carnegie, sales-driven spiritualist hokum: embrace 'em, they're ours. (This may be the true difference between Canadians and Americans. The vulgarity of improvement. Even leftists in Canada are old-line Tories, in a way. At least those in the Maritimes and Ontario; I have no experience with Western provinces.)
Seriously: I cannot get enough of the coarse graphic form that fixes those dreams in time. The crappy relief printing, the awkward halftones, the sans serif declarations of purpose, the paper that all but bursts into flame in your hands.
I see these things like characters in a sad language of would-be go-getters, markers of imagined meaning-through-doing.
I remember looking at things like these as a boy–they lived a long life, through the middle of the last century–and wondering after them.