Brian Doyle, editor of the estimable Portland and instigator of disputations with the Dalai Lama regarding the relative virtues of soccer and basketball, writes a Friday essay for the online edition of The American Scholar. His column is called “Epiphanies” and a recent epiphany was about Ben Birnbaum, editor of Boston College Magazine. I thought it be good reading for the UMagazinology audience, and Doyle and TAS were gracious about extending permission to republish it here. (I know, I know, two Doyle posts in a row, but these things happen.)
The third great editor I worked for, after Mister Burns in Chicago and Floyd Kemske in Boston, was Ben Birnbaum, also in Boston, where he still edits Boston College Magazine, which is still a very fine magazine, largely because Ben insists that it be interesting to anyone on the planet, and not just to Boston College alumni and donors. This philosophy, I learned, is the secret of an excellent college or university magazine, and the reason so many of them are so awful; a remarkable number of “alumni magazines,” as they are inaccurately called (many of them go to stunning numbers of donors, legislators, media folk, and prospective students and contributors), are only newsletters with shiny covers, and do not seek in the least to engage, enrage, rivet, startle, move, amuse, entertain, or elevate their readers; they seek merely to report feats and fetes, rather than any serious discussion of, say, student alcoholism, cheating, financial travails, date rape, or suicide, let alone soaring topics like grace and pain and peace and war and miracles and prayer and love in all its astonishing and confusing incarnations.
“. . . a remarkable number of ‘alumni magazines’ . . . are only newsletters with shiny covers, and do not seek in the least to engage, enrage, rivet, startle, move, amuse, entertain, or elevate their reader . . .”
I learned much else from Ben. I learned to curse with panache and confidence. I learned to say no politely but firmly to ideas for the magazine that were offered by people who did not understand the magazine’s range and ambition. I learned to be absorbed by the theater and passion and communal energy of sports while remaining skeptical of claims that sports build character. I learned to pay meticulous attention to the smallest building blocks of magazines—captions, headlines, decks, rubrics, outtakes, indicia—and to try to bring to even the smallest detail some humor and dash, if possible. I learned to edit with a cold heart, seeking only clarity between reader and writer. I learned that sometimes the best editing is none. I learned that a lot of good editing has nothing to do with words and ink and everything to do with asking questions and listening intently to what is said and not said. I learned that a university magazine at its best is not a literary magazine, not an academic journal, not a general interest organ, but a deft and gentle advertisement for the zest and verve and dreams of an institution that wishes to educate and shape the tall children it launches into the bruising and miraculous world.
I also learned a bit about driving taxis in Brooklyn, and working in circuses in Australia, and studying in rabbinical school, and writing poetry, and being married, and being a dad, all of which he had done and none of which I had, yet; but it’s the editing lessons that stay with me the most, many years later. In a real sense Ben taught me to dream much, much bigger; if you are going to make a magazine, why not try to make the best one in the world? The scope of the dream surely feeds the range of accomplishment, and you will then be working with the best writers and artists you can find, and in the end the work of the best writers and artists doesn’t need to be edited, much, so there you are, with much more time for poetry, or circuses.