Media Circus: The bathroom reading that dares not speak its name

The guilty pleasures of Parade, Readers Digest and Sunset.

Published September 12, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

when Parade landed at Hollywood's hometown newspaper of record a few months ago, a Rubicon had been crossed: The Los Angeles Times is now officially the biggest little hicksville paper in the world.

Parade, of course, is that venerable national supplement for papers too provincial or cash-strapped to have their own Sunday magazines. As a child I used to pore over Walter Scott's Personality Parade during the short time my mother subscribed to the Orange County, Calif., Register; she was selling Oriental rugs out of the garage and needed to check that her ad appeared each week. But for years this was just a pleasant (if rather stupefying) memory, along with the Register's wonderfully downmarket comics featuring the Jackson Twins and Dondi.

Oddly, Times readers now have two Sunday supplements, at least for a while. Although Spring Streetologists expected Parade to be the death knell of the failing Los Angeles Times Sunday Magazine, Times editors actually have put renewed effort behind it, and last Sunday the new, ad-fat, redesigned version -- now hokily subtitled "The Best of Socal" -- made its debut. Well, with the falling cost of newsprint and a booming economy, why not?

But despite that hideous new construction "Socal" (for Southern California -- get it?) in the title, I did find myself spending more time than usual last Sunday flipping through the Magazine. The cover profile on Deepak Chopra, in keeping with the pokey metronome of L.A. Times time, was typically way behind the curve. But there were pretty good columns on gardening, home design and restaurants -- plus a rather absorbing first-person entertaining column, courtesy of a woman who foolishly doubled the amount of mushrooms in a dinner party recipe and found herself still endlessly, tearfully chopping when guests arrived.

Then I returned the Magazine to its usual place on the throw-out pile, poured a really big cup of coffee and -- it kills me to admit this -- went out to the rocking-chair on the porch with ... Parade.

My shock at actually now being in a demographic base of Parade, with its "Irritable Colon?" and "Foot Pain Is No Laughing Matter" ads, pales beside my shock to find that Parade is actually quite compelling.

Old people and their exercise routines. Chicken salad recipes. And "Ask Marilyn," in which World's Highest I.Q. Person Marilyn Mach Vos Savant answers anything you might care to ask. Last week: "People with minds like yours must be tempted to spend a lot of time in their heads ... Do you have to train yourself to keep on smelling the roses?"

I don't really want to read it, and yet, so help me, I do.

I subscribe to three daily newspapers, six weekly periodicals and around 10 monthly magazines -- which here in the land of "but who has time to read?" pretty much solidifies my reputation as deeply strange. But here's something even stranger: The magazines I most eagerly read, that I literally can't wait to get my hands on, I not only don't subscribe to -- I'm embarrassed to be seen reading them in public. Besides Parade, here are my other secret favorites:

Bottom Line: This seductive little periodical is produced by Boardroom Inc., which also publishes books distilling boiled-down, practical information for the "but who has time to read?" crowd. Bottom Line, in fact, has transformed "but who has time to read?" from a plaintive whine into something of a battle-cry. I do have time to read, and I like to read, so I'm not sure why I find Bottom Line so irresistible whenever I happen upon it. I suspect the magazine functions as a sort of head-cleaning tape -- its sheer inanity washing away the detritus of too much information.

The pithy, bland articles, which typically include the phrases "Did You Know That ..." or "Expert Speaks" or "Useful Information for All of Us" in the headlines, buzz repeatedly around the classic '90s themes of stock market investing, office politics, bargain hunting and diet tips. Little boxes suggest sending away for free pamphlets on anxiety disorders or "The Overwhelmed Person's Guide to Time Management."

The target audience seems to be that vast crowd of hapless Dilbert drones. This isn't exactly my crowd, yet I find Bottom Line fairly regularly in friends' bathrooms. Perhaps they find it soothing, at least in the bathroom, for the same reasons I do. Or maybe they just let it pile up. I suspect the real secret to Bottom Line's success is that people who don't have time to read also don't have time to cancel subscriptions.

Westways and Avenues: Let's see, how long have I been a member of the Automobile Club of Southern California? Twenty-four years, according to my card! And that's how long I've been carefully crossing out the extra charge on my annual membership bill for an optional subscription to Westways magazine. Even cheapskates like me, however, are sent Avenues every month gratis. Avenues is a sort of stripped-down version of Westways, and like its grander sibling revolves around travel tips, car advice and whiling away the miles in Southern California (or "Socal," as the new, improved Los Angeles Times Magazine would have it).

I love getting Avenues because every time it arrives in my mailbox I get a frisson of skinflinty satisfaction that it could have been Westways and I could have been out $17. And I love reading Westways (for free, at the doctor's office) because of the fearsome Schadenfreude its masthead offers to Los Angeles journalists. Ah, yes, I remember those folks when they seemed to be on their way up. And maybe someday I'll land there on the way down myself, begging for an assignment about museum-hopping -- but not yet, thank God, not yet.

Reader's Digest: The entire Reader's Digest empire has been going through hard times lately. Last year a New York Times article about the magazine reported the problem of its aging audience in a nutshell: A Digest executive spied a young man engrossed in the magazine at an airport -- but he'd hidden it inside another publication! I know exactly how that reader felt. I adore Reader's Digest; I always have. But you're not going to catch me reading it in public.

Every month its wonderfully sentimental articles make me well up at least once. This month (the September issue) it was "One Wing and a Prayer," about a one-winged dove named Olive rescued by a hardscrabble Arizona farm family's 8-year-old daughter. Olive then raised a baby shrike the family found orphaned by a rainstorm, and then she molted and died, all alone in her shoe box, and ... excuse me, I need to get another Kleenex.

And yet I don't subscribe to it. That would be fully entering a world of Hummel figurines and Nicoderm ads and "Humor In Uniform" and there I cannot go. Instead, I find myself putting the Digest on the checkout counter conveyer belt, hoping no one I know is in line behind me, month after month after month.

On my morning walk I pass by a house that often has fabulous things out by the curb on garbage day. One day it was a Nancy Drew hardback from the '40s; another it was a 1967 paperback advice book for teenagers called "Date Talk." But imagine my excitement at finding an entire year's worth of Reader's Digests! Free! For the taking! Since Digest articles by definition do not date, I promised myself that this plunder would last a year. Alas, I finished it in a few weeks and am back to furtively buying new issues at the grocery store.

Sunset: Recently I got into an argument with a friend about the virtues of Sunset vs. Martha Stewart Living. "But Sunset's so boring!" she claimed. No, no! Or rather: Yes ... but. Sunset, a regional institution as well as a media one, is gearing up for its 100th anniversary next year. Although a few months ago it completed a makeover of such subtlety that the in-house description is not "redesign" but "refreshening," the magazine remains so hypnotically boring it approaches the sublime.

To enter this wonderfully realized world -- in which irksome office concerns seem to have been banished by some all-powerful cult of leisure -- you first must be, in a sense, open to boredom. That is, you must have nothing better to do than pore over the finer points of bulb planting or deck varnishing. This is not a state I enjoy admitting that I'm in to others, but there it is. Some people claim to find similar escape in Martha Stewart Living, but I think they're fooling themselves. Constant, nagging questions distract from the Marthaland vision. Has Martha had a face lift? Or: Marzipan fruit ... Why? The Sunset universe, on the other hand, is narcotically relaxing. I find even the occasional dissonant notes cozily predictable in their serene, unchanging awfulness. From a 1973 issue: Try paneling a bedroom in ... garden benderboard! (Now there's an idea.) From last December: Get in the Christmas spirit with ... reindeer pati! (Sounds Donder-licious.)

Best of all is that people in Sunset photographs, unlike Martha, do not look better than you. They look as if they have eaten a few too many triple-tested Sunset recipes. And yet they seem happy -- happy just cultivating their gardens. Is there a better vision of life well-lived?

By Catherine Seipp

Catherine Seipp is a regular contributor to Salon.

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