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The Utne Reader’s Verbal Salad of Salons

Reading an excellent issue of an excellent magazine is like attending an invigorating dinner party. Some ideas discussed may be bitter, some delicious, but ultimately the encounter nourishes participants in a way that transcends mere nutrition.

Now the Utne Reader, a remarkably reliable forum, has decided to step beyond the printed page and organize its readers into neighborhood “salons” that might approximate the heady rap sessions held at the Algonquin Round Table or in Gertrude Stein’s Paris apartment.

In the March/April issue, Utne invites readers to send in their names and addresses so that they might be brought together in groups of 25. The issue also features a package of articles on how and why it may be a good time for “salons,” “councils,” “study circles” or whatever else these gatherings might be called.

At its best, Utne could well provide a common departure point for interesting discussion and debate nationwide. For instance, in this issue the collection of pieces on abortion gives voice to a bunch of divergent and intelligent viewpoints. You’d have to go through a whole stack of publications to get such an array, which is how Utne gets its material.

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And, as Christopher Lasch says in another article, argument--not agreement--is what binds this country.

“If we insist on argument as the essence of education, we will defend democracy not as the most efficient but as the most educational form of government--one that extends the circle of debates as widely as possible and thus forces all citizens to articulate their views, to put their views at risk, and to cultivate the virtues of eloquence, clarity of thought and expression, and sound judgment,” he says.

At its increasingly rare worst, Utne lapses into New Agey froth and blather, and some of the discussions of the salon suggest that there is also potential for the live forums to turn touchy-feely fast. It’s bad enough to come across an enlightened soul’s print pontifications. To be stuck with a roomful of self-styled ascended masters could cause serious indigestion.

Would anyone care to volunteer, for instance, for the San Francisco “intuitional community” that convenes to discuss its founder’s dream of “conscious democracy as a global spiritual path?”

“The discussion is at a pretty high level,” the organizer assures, adding later: “Electronic media are bloodless and passive. But when you’re with people you can’t turn them off.”

Readers who get the willies around such bloody active chatter do have an alternative. As described in another Utne article, the WELL is a computer linked “electronic village” sponsored by the Whole Earth Review. The WELL gives 3,800 “writers, artists, scientists, and other obsessively curious people,” an environment in which to cluster, via modem, and discuss anything from “The Works of James Joyce” to “Your Biggest Sexual Fantasy.”

As Mike Gunderloy, editor of the publication Fact Sheet Five, says in the article, “I hang out here because all the cool people are here, the ones who make me think. . . . All knowledge is contained in WELLdom. I know I can ask darned near anything here and get an answer from a real person . . . and get multiple points of view and useful arguments, too.”

The debate about the relative advantages of flesh-and-blood versus modem-and-keyboard might make good salon fare. In either forum, though, it is worth remembering the remark quoted in Utne by James McNeill Whistler: “If other people are going to talk, conversation becomes impossible.”

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REQUIRED READING

A horrifying number of children in the United States live in poverty, but what’s been happening to children in Latin America makes this country look like one big Disneyland.

And things are getting worse by the day.

“In Latin America, millions of children now live, eat, and sleep in the streets . . . the continent crawls with olvidados-- forgotten ones,” writes Nobel Peace Prize-winner Adolfo Perez Esquivel in an article from Le Monde Diplomatique, which is republished in the March World Press Review. Policies of the World Band and International Monetary Fund are exacerbating the poverty, Esquivel argues.

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Delinquency “is a form of survival, a way for the weakest and poorest to wage a war of resistance.” The war already has spread throughout the Third World, he continues, and cannot forever be contained by geopolitical boundaries. “Two-thirds of the world’s people go hungry. They will certainly not stay forever on the sidelines, meekly staring at the rich as they tuck into the feast.”

How much can possibly be said about a sport that simply requires putting one foot in front of the other? Anyone who has to ask clearly doesn’t inhabit the world of runners. This year Runner’s World celebrates its silver anniversary. But as publisher George Hirsch says, “We see this as more than just a magazine anniversary, this is the 25th anniversary of running as a major participant sport.”

Running enthusiasm first sprinted off in the mid-1960s, gaining momentum with Frank Shorter’s high-profile win in the 1972 Olympics, says Hirsch, who arrives in Los Angeles today to do television commentary for the Los Angeles Marathon.

The sport’s popularity peaked around the time of the 1984 Olympics, he said, and has been building again gradually since 1987, as evidenced by the circulation of Runner’s World, which is now pushing 450,000. In May the magazine will produce an anniversary issue, and the December issue will name the best track and field athletes of the quarter century.

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TRADE TALK

In February 1741, Benjamin Franklin and Andrew Bradford launched the first two American magazines. Neither Franklin’s General Magazine and Historical Chronicle nor Bradford’s American Magazine survived long.

But this country’s magazine publishing industry did, and this spring, the industry is going to celebrate its 250th anniversary. It’s not likely to have as many keg parties and wet T-shirt contests as other spring break bashes, but LA Magazine Week at the Hyatt at Los Angeles International Airport should prove stimulating.

Sponsored by the Western Publications Assn., along with Magazine Publishers of America and Folio magazine, Magazine Week celebrates the 250th Anniversary of American Magazine Publishing, runs April 2 through 5, and features insider tips on all aspects of the trade, including magazine writing, design, management, marketing, circulation, production and desktop publishing.

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The week culminates with the 34th annual Maggie Banquet, where the Western Publications Assn. will present this year’s awards for excellence in a publishing. For seminar registration, call (203) 358-9900, Ext. 4; for information on the Maggie Banquet, call (818) 995-7338.


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