With the Chicago newspaper geniuses producing publications for people who don't read (RedEye and Red Streak), I'm glad to report that the Boston Globe has ginned up a section for people who do—"Ideas," the paper's recast Sunday commentary section.
Edited by Alexander Star, "Ideas" avoids the fatigued formulas that dictate the contents of the Los Angeles Times' "Opinion," the New York Times' "Week in Review," and the Washington Post's "Outlook" sections. Rather than spinning a remix of the week's news by including the Big Thoughts that should have been in the daily news stories to begin with, "Ideas" revolves a few degrees south of the descending news cycle to tell you smart things you didn't even know you needed to know.
Since "Ideas" replaced the Globe's "Focus" section on Sept. 15, the Star-directed section has essayed on the history and politics of the bathroom break, the left's blindness on Iraq, the irony-free irony of selling Jaguars with Clash tunes (by Slate's Rob Walker), Brigham Young University's academic freedom problem, Pat Buchanan's old right/new left fusion, the rise of Ian Fleming's literary reputation, the plot against Halloween, as well as the obligatory Sunday rethinks of just war, the end of the American-Arab romance, and Bob Greene.
Readers of the Star-edited Lingua Franca, which entered magazine Valhalla last year after its financier called it quits, will recognize some "Ideas" bylines. (Globe staffers also contribute, and starting this week, "Ideas" has a staff writer of its own, Laura Secor.) Readers will also recognize the casual brainiac approach that made Lingua Franca such a delight to read. Like Lingua Franca, "Ideas" assumes that you've done your current events homework during the week and that you've set aside time to read and to think about the important stuff that the news obscured. This is serious journalism that doesn't take itself too seriously. (The section goes live every Sunday morning at http://www.boston.com/globe/sunday/. If you need a reminder, subscribe to the "Ideas" e-mail list on this page.)
(Interest declared: Alex Star is a friend of mine, but not such a good friend that I wouldn't rather write something mean about him given half a chance.)
Sharp short pieces about caffeine, Alice Waters, the Klein bottle, Michael Dukakis, and the nexus between gecko wall-climbing and van der Waals' forces make for eye-whetting appetizers. And the generous white space and handsome use of color make the pages ever-more inviting. (Aside to Slate'seditors: Shouldn't we get the improbably named Jeet Heer, an "Ideas" regular, to do something for us in "Culturebox"? Too bad that the Web link to Heer's fine piece on Little Orphan Annie's fan mail from John Updike and Pete Hamill is dead. Who would have guessed that Cynthia Ozick worshipped Milton "Terry and the Pirates" Caniff?)
To preserve my credibility as a press critic in the wake of this rave, let me discourage Star from running any more excerpts or reprints (Steven Pinker's new book, Elaine Scarry's Boston Review feature, and a Journal of American History piece). Excerpts are the lazy editor's path to the hellmouth, and no matter how good they are, they must be avoided. An editor might as well mail it in.
"Ideas" isn't the answer to the newspaper industry's problem of declining readership, but it's high time editors started whoring after smart people who want to read.
What's your idea about "Ideas"? I read my mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.