It's becoming a rite of summer: Every year we ask each other what periodicals we've been reading, and then we ask you. Every year we argue about what makes a good magazine and why we rush to pick up certain titles or swipe them from a neighbor's desk. We urge each other to try something new, and we smack our foreheads when a title bubbles up that we'd completely missed.
This year we've been paying special attention to media on the Internet. Most magazines have a Web presence, but we've picked out five sites that offer something special, something more than the same content we read in print. Take a look and see what you think -- and please tell us what's on your personal magazine rack these warm summer days.
The Believer. A monthly magazine in which length is no object, it vows to focus "on writers and books we like. We will give people and books the benefit of the doubt." The design is remarkable; the paper stock is thick and satisfying, and so is the writing.
Granta. Combine fiction, fine photography and collections of essays, and what do you get? Brilliance, if it's Granta. Four times a year the British publication puts out an approximately 300-page periodical, featuring everyone from Gabriel Garcia Márquez to Bill Bryson.
The New York Review of Books. This ancient, much-revered and now iconic magazine is still the gold standard for serious cultural criticism. Larry McMurtry and Joyce Carol Oates are among the working artists who pause to contribute luminous essays to the NYRB. Plus, you can't beat the personal ads in the back.
The New Yorker. Katherine Boo's story on the closing of one of the worst high schools in Colorado wasn't just challenging and moving, it was absolutely riveting - and a reminder that, if other magazines have more bells and whistles, the New Yorker has, pound for pound, more quality writing and reporting than anyone around.
Blueprint. From the Martha Stewart empire, her latest guide to personal style puts an emphasis on easy step-by-steps. In the Real Simple mold but with a hipper mood, Blueprint combines home, fashion and food coverage, and spares us the impossible dreams disguised as "good things."
Cottage Living. OK, so the term 'cottage' means different things to different people, but the underlying philosophy - "comfort, simplicity, style" - helps clarify. Regular gardening, decorating, shopping and travel articles complete the mix. Our favorite: a back-page feature giving "cottage" curb appeal to a plain-Jane exterior.
Fine Gardening. You're a smart gardener but you don't know everything. You'd like good ideas, design inspiration for real people's yards, plant suggestions and clear, well-illustrated advice from experts that respect your intelligence. This is the magazine for you.
Garden Gate. Newer gardeners can feel safe in the arms of this bimonthly, which is all about being cozy and accessible. There are lots of explanations, diagrams and plans, and a big spread of reader tips.
This Old House. Despite the name, there's pretty good landscaping stuff in these pages too. You won't find articles on pruning clematis or choosing hydrangeas, but you will find excellent, well-presented advice on planning, installing and maintaining lawns, trees, shrubs and other basic plants, as well as patios and paths. It's also the best magazine source for learning how to use tools.
Organic Gardening. The ancient eminence of the organic world has become bright and lively. It's packed with good information on growing all kinds of plants - right up to roses - in a safe, environmentally friendly way. We like the concise reports on scientific research into what works and what doesn't.
ReadyMade. For the hip and crafty, ReadyMade provides DIY project ideas and instructions plus household tips and useful craft information. Projects vary and range from instructions on converting a vintage radio to play an iPod to creating a faux mosaic with paint chips. An inspiring magazine that makes us want to get off the couch and do something crafty.
Cooks Illustrated. It's still the best and most trustable (no ads) consumer food mag going. Just reading through the steps that go into finding one of their perfect recipes always teaches you something useful about culinary chemistry.Everyday Food. Maybe it's because it fits in your purse, but this graphically pleasing monthly from the Martha Stewart camp makes pulling together quick, delicious and attractive meals seem manageable.
Gourmet. Still the queen of foodie mags. Great vintage and modern recipes blend with terrific travel features - Kashgar anyone? - practical pointers and poignant writerly essays such as Scott Simon's moving, Beard Award-winning "Conflict Cuisine" last year.
Saveur. Reading Saveur is like taking a trip to a new land each month, though it certainly covers cooks and dishes closer to home too. It's a magazine for cooks who are ready to move on from the 15-minutes-or-less recipes and their required mind-set. We love the nuggets of food festival news and history.
Juxtapoz. The "lowbrow" art bible for those who love artists on the pop fringe. Insightful, knowledgeable writers pen cover stories about the appeal of Mark Dryden's dreamy (read: nightmarish) kewpie doll paintings and tattoo art, in addition to lavishing illustrated profiles on artists such as Vincent Valdez, Slick and Adam Wallacavage. An entire article on Iggy Pop - the painter? Count us in.
Mental Floss. Sure, it's a snarky take on pop culture, history, science and the arts, but the magazine is also informative, quirky and creative in its writing and subject matter ("The 20 Greatest Mistakes in History"). The Web site, mentalfloss.com, is a delight for trivia buffs, and the blog offers knowledge nuggets for everyone.
New York. Is Amy Larocca the best fashion writer in America? Or the best street reporter? Read her hilarious, laser-sharp interviews for the fashion-on-the-street feature, "The Look Book," and judge for yourself. "The Look Book" is emblematic of New York, not because the magazine is really about fashion, but because it excels at nearly everything it does: crime coverage, real estate notes, commentary, trend stories.
Paste. Too young for Rolling Stone but not young enough for Blender? Then Paste probably speaks to you. Covering everything from alt country to indie film, Paste continually surprises with elegantly designed, thoughtfully written pieces that ponder the direction of the culture. Reviews are consistently thought-provoking and snarky, even if very few records get less than a three-star rating. If nothing else in the magazine appeals, something on the free enclosed CD should hit a nerve.
Rolling Stone. This 40-year-old icon has regained its mainstream relevance - it has stopped trying to compete with Maxim and FHM and returned its focus to thought-out profiles of musicians and in-depth, expressive political features. You don't go to Rolling Stone for sex and lifestyle advice; you open it because the magazine knows its music and has a story or two left to tell.
Us Weekly. Tribune reporters read all the Serious Highbrow Magazines. Really. But, to judge from the near impossibility of obtaining the new copy of Us magazine from the in-house library, we read the Queen of the Gossip Magazines first. And with headlines such as "The Final Insult: Shiloh Was No Accident!" backed up by a story that actually delivers the goods, who can blame us?
Vanity Fair. We always knew that Vanity Fair was cute and well-connected, but in recent years we've come to appreciate that the debutante of the glossy magazine world is one heck of a street fighter, able to get a scoop ("Big Throat's Identity") that the big boys would kill for. VF can be cloying - check out the rapturous story on new parents Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes - but hey, no one's perfect. And we loved the Suri Cruise photos.
Venus Zine. A locally published magazine with a focus on women in the arts, Venus Zine features high-profile stars alongside independent artists. The magazine is jam-packed with profiles, interviews and feature stories about female musicians, artists, filmmakers and designers. A magazine that shows women can rock.
Wired. A terrific monthly chronicle of pop cultural technology that just keeps getting better. First it gives us the snapshots of the evolving world of tech and science. Then there are the illuminating regular features, such as "What's Inside" or "Mr. Know It All." Finally there are the richly reported stories, such as "The Sad Decline of NASA" or "The New Atheism" or "The Science of Human Enhancement." Our fave was the "How-To" issue, with advice on everything from hacking your iPod to boosting your brain.
Best Life. We're men and we want to be better. No, really. So we read this monthly from the makers of Men's Health. It's like Real Simple for the American male. Already it has made us better fathers, better employees, better bosses, better husbands, better cooks, better investors - and better looking - or at least we think so, because we're feeling much better about ourselves these days. No, really.
Esquire. OK, so it's not as solid as it was in the '70s, but neither are rock 'n' roll and the Miami Dolphins. Today the magazine shines with gripping non-fiction pieces and quick-hit articles on fashion, health and food/booze. It even manages to make celebrity interviews readable.
Glamour. This nearly 70-year-old monthly, which boasts a generous mix of beauty tips, fashion spreads, health news, sex advice, celebrity interviews and feature articles (global warming, violence against women, bulimia, etc.), still doesn't show its age. With staples such as "Jake: A Man's Opinion," "Would You Dare?" and its annual "Top 10 College Women" competition, there's something for almost everyone. But the feature that grabs our attention like a bikini wedgie on the beach is "Do's and Don'ts." Definitely a do.
Men's Journal. Lots of cool products, such as the latest bikes, shades and shoes, plus nifty feature stories and profiles that range from politics to ecology to high adventure. The consumer features - which wristwatch keeps on ticking while you're scuba diving off the Great Barrier Reef? - seem to overwhelm the stories in recent issues, but it's a handsomely produced magazine that makes you want to leave your desk and go sky-diving.
National Geographic. Smart, beautiful, resolutely international, National Geographic tells stories that are thought-provoking ("Jamestown: The Real Story") and important ("The Big Thaw: Ice on the Run, Seas on the Rise"). This magazine remains true to itself and relevant to its readers.
Southwest Airlines' Spirit Magazine. Southwest has the best in-flight magazine to be found in a crusty seat pocket in front of you. We were surprised by a recent cover story on the online phenomenon "Second Life," complete with a big, glossy photo of an avatar on the front. There's the usual stuff on spa vacations and "7 Things to Do in Nashville," sure, but even these articles seem well thought out.
NEWS/BUSINESS/POINT OF VIEW
Discover. This is the science magazine for anyone who flunked 11th-grade biology. It tackles topics ranging from global warming to black holes to Neanderthals with a refreshing lack of academic jargon. And you thought you'd never understand string theory.
The Economist. We hope there will always be an Economist. As newsweeklies go, it's the one that impresses most consistently, time after time, not just for its amazing comprehensiveness - sections covering the U.S., the Americas, Asia, the Middle East and Africa, Europe as well as Britian; world finance and economics, science and technology, and books and the arts - but also for its tone, which manages a detached, stiff-upper-lip quality that makes you believe, whether it's true or not, that opinions are secondary, sir, and here, first, are the facts.
Harvard Business Review. You aren't a business executive. You don't care about business. So what business do you have reading this legendary magazine with the intimidating-sounding name? It has interesting features that end up sounding more like outtakes from "Dr. Phil" than typical biz-school boilerplate, as human emotions clash over money and power. Case studies about corporate challenges are fascinating. The clean layout is refreshingly minimalist n this age of overheated graphics. Best of all, if you carry a copy under your arm, you will automatically pick up 20 IQ points.
Mother Jones. As well-written, at its best, as anything out there (check out the story on the guy who gets 60 miles per gallon in a plain old Honda Accord), Mother Jones is a lot better than we remembered. Unabashedly liberal but more entertaining than the Nation and journalistically oriented but more passionate than the news weeklies, it fills a need we didn't know we had.
Time. Last year, we could barely distinguish between the two major newsweeklies. But Time's redesign and rethinking has made it superior to rival Newsweek. The layout is clean and inviting. The most important stories (political, environmental, global) are longer and richer. The others are more succinct. The commentary seems much sharper. And it's just more fun to read.
The Week. The highly credible newsweekly's editors save busy readers a lot of time by scanning hundreds of U.S. and international media sources and featuring the best opinion columns, stories, book, movie and television reviews and gossip. Crisp, concise and often funny, The Week never wastes your time.
LensWork. Simply gorgeous printing of fine photography at your fingertips six times a year from our Canadian neighbors. Informative, well written articles that invigorate the creative process within, and without the techno mumbo jumbo. This little magazine is not just for photographers but for anyone who understands that photography is a passion.
Lincoln Lore. With the bicentennial of Abraham Lincoln's birth looming in 2009, where better to get the scoop on the 16th president than this quarterly publication of the Lincoln Museum in Ft. Wayne, Ind.? A recent issue featured six pages on the disputed parentage of Lincoln's mom, an essay on Lincoln and U.S. conservatives, and lengthy reviews of books about the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln's use of language and slavery.
MAGIC. Because magicians are so secretive about their craft to begin with, it's appropriate that this monthly glossy is not available at a newsstand or library - it's only sold at magic shops and through subscription. A veritable who's who of magicians contribute each month with essays on craft, tricks, product reviews, finessing that stubborn "Goshman Pinch" move of yours, plus profiles of the conjurer du jour.
Men's Health. True to its tag line, "Tons of Useful Stuff," Men's Health offers more than just exercises for "Hard Abs!" which also makes it entertaining - and enlightening - reading for women.
Mountain Bike. For and by knobby-tired enthusiasts, it includes trail guides, adventure stories and how-to's such as taking big drops, clearing rock piles and (we'll probably need it) limping home on a busted bike. As the little sibling to Bicycling, it has the resources to do its own gear guides when many similar publications are going to reader comments or simply reprinting information from the manufacturers.
Psychotherapy Networker. Pssst, wanna know what your therapist is reading? It's this journal about the craft and science of the talking cure. The articles are meaty and finely nuanced. A recent example: The 10 most influential therapists over the past quarter-century. No. 1? Carl Rogers.
Smithsonian. With the magazine that accompanies membership in the Smithsonian Institution, you know to expect well-written and well-researched articles on astronomy, archeology, exotic flora and fauna and so on. It's the unexpected - a profile of a man who built large-scale, fantasy flying machines, the patent office records of an invention by Abe Lincoln - that keep you looking forward to the next issue.
ToyFare. ToyFare has been on our "best of" list three times, and for good reason. Not only is it impeccably written and displays an uncanny (OK, creepy) knowledge of the collectible toy business - it also is the only magazine that makes us consistently laugh out loud with its naughty, literate word balloons placed in the most inappropriate places.
Wondertime. A relative newcomer, the parenting magazine was launched last spring to "celebrate a child's love of learning" and covers all stage of development from newborn to age 6. Clever, well-written and beautifully designed, it also features readers' family traditions and useful tips such as how to play Red Light, Green Light, how to throw a ball or tie a shoelace, and how to explain to your children why a mosquito bites.
Mothering.com. An extension of the flagship "natural family living" magazine, Mothering.com will link you to like-minded moms who want to know more about extended breast-feeding, drug-free and home births, vaccinations, midwifery, organic foods, homeopathy and co-sleeping. On the site, you can ask experts questions, plug into a live chat with a doula or browse the media section to find a video of a natural home birth. The independently spirited site also promotes activism. Both the magazine and the Web site are blissfully free of the plastic junk advertised in mainstream parenting magazines. Digital subscriptions are $20 for a year.
New Scientist.com. The still-lively print version has been a science and technology favorite since 1956. But the magazine's 21st Century offering, NewScientist.com, includes the excellent content from the print edition, the ability to search more than 60,000 articles, along with blogs on environment, space and technology. The site also includes breaking news updated daily and a science and technology jobs database. Full access requires a subscription to the print magazine, which includes special in-depth reports, news on emerging technologies, interviews with high-profile personalities and editorial comment.
The Onion A.V. Club (avclub.com). While free satire weekly The Onion carries the mantle of Spy magazine, its serious arts and culture section - the A.V. Club - is a direct descendant of long-form 1960s-style journalism exemplified by Esquire and Playboy. While, yes, the A.V. does have a print incarnation, its online version offers expansive, career-spanning interviews with authors, filmmakers, actors - even video game creators. Better yet, smaller features like "Commentary Tracks of the Damned" (a breakdown of DVD commentaries from bombs like "The Wicker Man" remake) make the A.V. Club a must-read beyond the literate, compact reviews from writers such as Tasha Robinson, Scott Tobias and Nathan Rabin. It's the kind of place you can get lost, once you fall into the archive's search function.
Pitchfork Media (pitchforkmedia.com). In the same way MTV prompted a re-evaluation of the importance of radio, online music criticism has leapfrogged old print standbys when it comes time to find the next big thing in music. There is no better example of this shift in cultural weight than Pitchforkmedia.com. The Chicago-based site debuted in 1996 but has gained notoriety in the past few years as it's credited with being at least partly responsible for the success of several indie rock-acts, including The Arcade Fire, Broken Social Scene and Tapes 'n Tapes. Pitchfork Media even expanded its empire with a music festival for the past two years (Union Park, July 13-15). With daily news, album and concert reviews, interviews, and audio and video clips of brand new or unreleased songs, Pitchfork has become synonymous with being at the cutting edge of the music you can't find on the radio.
Slate.com: If it's opinion you like, they're still serving it up hot and fresh and fun at this well-known online mag, which pretends to be about politics but really is one of the best cultural mags around. Christopher Hitchens is always good for a chuckle, and arts critics such as Troy Patterson and Dana Stevens are a couple of scribbling scamps you just shouldn't miss. The writing at Slate.com is sharp and topical; the essays are short; and the Web presentation is dandy.
Contributing: Tim Bannon, Geoffrey Black, Beth Botts, Carmel Carrillo, Julie Deardorff, Wendy Donahue, Helen Eckinger, Robert K. Elder, Monica Eng, Doug George, Carol Mighton Haddix, Julia Keller, Dan Kricke, Charles Leroux, Lilah Lohr, Maria Mooshil, Emily Nunn, Kevin Pang, Patrick T. Reardon, Becky Schlikerman, Nara Schoenberg, Dimitry Tetin