There's an old story about the love of ideas for their own sake: after his inauguration in 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt went to the Washington home of Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. He wanted to pay his respects to the retired Supreme Court justice, at 92 considered perhaps the greatest living American. FDR found Holmes in his study, lingering over one of Plato's dialogues. "Why, Mr. Justice, are you reading Plato?" asked that most practical of politicians. He meant: why, at your age? Holmes replied, "To improve my mind, Mr. President."
Holmes was a lay intellectual, a nonprofessional man of letters. His interest in ideas owed nothing to an academic salary. His social circle was full of such people. The smart money says they hardly exist anymore. So why would anyone buy a magazine like The Atlantic Monthly? Last week a Washington, D.C., businessman named David Bradley paid something on the order of $15 million (he declined to reveal the exact figure) to Mortimer Zuckerman for the magazine cofounded by Holmes's father, the poet Oliver Wendell Holmes, 142 years ago. The Atlantic is a perennial winner of respect and awards for its blend of reportage, essays, short stories, poetry and reviews. It publishes acclaimed fiction writers like John Updike and thoughtful journalists like Robert D. Kaplan. But it doesn't make money. For years, its circulation has been stuck in the range of 460,000.
Every magazine has its ideal reader, and for the "thought-leader" category The Atlantic belongs to, that reader is the lay intellectual. Reflective lawyers, like federal Judge Richard A. Posner, are ideal readers. So are military intellectuals such as Col. Harry Summers, author of "On Strategy." But the number of such people is small--no more than a million Americans, by the estimate of John R. MacArthur, the publisher of Harper's magazine, The Atlantic's chief rival. And with a number of magazines carving up this constituency--not only The Atlantic and Harper's, but also publications like The New Republic, Commentary and The National Interest--the commercial prospects for any one of them don't seem bright.
How often does a thought-leader magazine spark a controversy outside its core readership? It does happen: Francis Fukuyama's much-debated proclamation of "The End of History" first appeared in the National Interest in 1989. And in 1993 Foreign Affairs printed Samuel Huntington's argument that cultural fault lines--based on differences of religion, language and tradition--would be the battlegrounds of the future. The Atlantic itself found broader readership for a 1993 article supporting two-parent families, perhaps less for its content than for its title: "Dan Quayle Was Right." These are, however, rare events.
The marginalization of abstract thinking is of course an old story. Furthermore, The Atlantic and its counterparts have long suffered from what might be called the "Two Cultures" problem, after C. P. Snow's 1959 book in which he deplored the widening gulf between humanists and scientists, and particularly the scientific illiteracy of the former. Most of the really powerful intellectual innovations of this half century have in fact been scientific and technical: superstring theory, for example. There's not a huge market for superstring theory, probably not even among Atlantic readers.
There is one new dilemma today, neatly captured by David Shenk in the title of his 1997 book "Data Smog." With high-speed networks belching out great clouds of facts and speculations masquerading as facts, it becomes difficult to tell the useful from the worthless, or even the true from the false. Information today is so easy to acquire that we hardly know how to assign value to it. The danger for the thought-leader magazines is that they, too, will soon be perceived as one more source of data, essentially no different from or better than the rest.
Still, every problem is an opportunity. Michael Kelly, The Atlantic's new editor and formerly editor of The New Republic, argues that "It's the smog aspect that makes [publishing] work for magazines like us. We have a culture of a ratcheted-up bombardment of everyone, a great wash of talk, blather, chatter... and it's all sending the same message: 'You have to pay attention to this right now. The zeitgeist is changing from what it was two minutes ago, and you don't want to miss it'.'' The Atlantic, he says, should be an "antidote" to media overheat, "the absurd topicality of everything."
But is that possible in the Internet age? With its emphasis on instant access and immediately usable facts, the Internet may be conditioning us against the length and pace of Atlantic articles. Indeed, simply because of the display limitations of computers, the Web may be a hostile environment for complex ideas. Kelly disputes this, claiming that both in print and online, there will always be readers for a magazine that "makes you stop." Serious readers, he says, are passionate ones, and "passion is a commercial quality."
Perhaps. Holmes, who once praised "the senseless passion for knowledge outreaching the flaming bounds of the possible," would surely approve of the sentiment. But he was nothing if not a realist, and in the case of today's Atlantic, he might place his stress on the phrase about outreaching the possible.