Personal Statement: The tantric New York Times

BY BRIAN TENGEL

Published February 3, 2009

Reading the Sunday New York Times is better than sex,” a friend of mine once remarked a few years ago.

Being unfamiliar with the paper at the time, I couldn’t validate his statement. But it gave me pause. The Sunday Times must really be something, I thought, if he’s arguing that it’s better than sex. So I started reading.

Originally, I bought the paper every Sunday at Starbucks on State Street. But this became too risky — if I showed up any later than noon, I’d walk in and find an empty newsstand, an experience that left me paralyzed with rage and despair. To prevent any health complications, I soon switched to home delivery. But this still hasn’t completely relieved my anxiety.

Now, I walk outside my apartment every Sunday morning at about 11 a.m. to get the paper. The heart palpitations begin immediately. I start sweating uncontrollably and my stomach feels like a bundle of knots. My whole body becomes tense. “It better be there, it better be there,” I murmur under my breath, as if this chant will somehow guarantee that my paper has been delivered. As almost anyone with a subscription will tell you, a delivery is anything but certain.

On those blessed days when I get the paper, I take it inside and glance at the content to whet my appetite. Then, I make a pot of coffee, put on my beige slippers and go to work. I delve into the paper, absorbing page after page of fascinating stories written in crisp, clean prose. I learn about foreign wars and domestic poverty, international intrigue and U.S. politics. I learn about anything and everything.

And so the paper has become a kind of fix. I’ve come to need the knowledge it provides. Without it, I feel incomplete and shamefully ignorant of what’s happening in the world. I feel stranded in Ann Arbor, enclosed in the bubble of academia. The paper is my antidote to oblivion.

Three years after I first held the Sunday Times in my hands, I’ve realized that my friend’s claim reflects an impassioned reverence for the art of print journalism and an enthusiasm for the power of ideas in shaping society.

But I’ve also realized something else — reading the Sunday paper is perhaps not so unlike having sex. Both are a true art that must be pursued with patience and dedication.

Just as there are different sex techniques, there are different techniques for reading the Sunday Times. And in both cases, some techniques are much more successful than others. It takes time to discover what works and what doesn’t. If you’re impatient, in both cases things are bound to go less than smoothly.

Since I’ve been reading the Sunday Times, I’ve worked tirelessly to come up with a way to peruse the entire paper in a reasonable amount of time (three hours). I’ve spent long hours trying to hone my craft. After all this toil, I think I’ve finally developed an efficient strategy.

First, I read every word of text on the front page of the paper, paying particular attention to the lead (top right of the page) and off-lead (top left) stories for the day. That way, I have a sense of what’s the most important news, which helps in understanding other sections of the paper, like the opinion pieces and political cartoons. Once I’ve read the front page, I move quickly through the International and National Reports, scanning the headline and first paragraph of each article.

With a solid briefing on major news, I then tackle two sections in rapid succession: Arts and Sunday Styles. For Arts, I restrict myself to reading the major movie reviews, especially those written by A.O. Scott, the Times’ chief movie critic, whose commentary I find irresistibly keen and insightful. The Sunday Styles section, which features articles on the latest trends, can be hit or miss. I once had the pleasure of reading an intriguing piece on how Obama’s love of basketball distinguishes him from past presidents, whose sports of choice have often been tennis or golf. But I also had the misfortune of reading an article about men who are obsessed with their cats.

Next come the Business, Travel and Sports sections, none of which I spend much time reading. In fact, I seldom read Travel, mostly because I don’t have the money or time to take any of the trips it suggests. In the Business section, I only read the feature article and the stock reports. If anything really notable happened in business, it’ll be in the National Report (or at least that’s what I tell myself). For Sports, I look at the front page to see if there are any cool pictures. Even though I really don’t read them, I still feel compelled to at least look at these sections.

It may seem like I’ve been doing a lot of picking and choosing. That’s because I spend virtually all my time reading the Book Review, the Week in Review and the Sunday Magazine. For me, these three sections constitute the cornerstone of the Sunday Times. They represent the climax of my week, an orgasm of incisive news analysis and literary reviews. On some wintry Sunday mornings, these sections are the only reason I get out of bed.

In the Book Review, I start with the cover article and then read each successive review, especially those on books about foreign policy. There’s one element of the Book Review, though, that makes it indispensable: since the reviews are so comprehensive, it becomes unnecessary to actually read the books themselves. When you’re short on both time and money, this proves really helpful.

The Week in Review and Sunday Magazine are both invaluable for their extensive political commentary and cultural analysis. For the Week in Review, I have a routine: I read the feature stories first, then the political cartoons and opinion pieces. Of the four Sunday columnists, I find two essential: Thomas Friedman on foreign policy and the environment, and Nicholas Kristof on humanitarian problems. The other two, Maureen Dowd and Frank Rich, are liberal satirists whose ranting can become trite after a few columns.

In the Sunday Magazine, I first read “The Way We Live Now,” a column on current events and cultural trends. I then read the weekly interview, which typically features a prominent person in politics (Karl Rove) or the arts (Sheryl Crow). Next comes William Safire’s column, “On Language,” in which he examines the etymology of words that are often used in the media. (A recent column discussed the subtle differences among the words “profanity,” “obscenity,” “expletive,” “vulgarity,” “execration,” “epithet” and “imprecation.”) Finally, I read the cover story, which is almost always relevant and illuminating.

So that’s what I do for three hours every Sunday. Yes, it’s time-consuming. Yes, the whole endeavor may seem a bit strange. But that’s how I remind myself that there’s more to life than homework. Reading the Sunday Times is my reward for all those sleepless nights spent studying at the UGLi. It’s a reminder to myself that I can learn without being graded and that an intellectual dialogue exists outside the classroom.

The Sunday Times may or may not be better than sex. But if you haven’t had much luck at Scorekeepers lately, it might be worth checking out.

—Brian Tengel compiles The Junk Drawer for The Statement